It’s all a numbers game now for Danielle Tuakalau. It’s been about 10 weeks since she had the reconstructive surgery to repair her torn ACL and meniscus. But an unknown number of months stretch out before her, months of new and different types of pain and tiny bits of progress too miniscule to detect and appreciate in the moment.
“It still hurts,” she explains. “It hurts every day.”
She stopped taking the pain medication pretty early on, concerned about any long-term effects and perhaps holding out some small hope that perhaps dealing directly with the pain might help to hasten the recovery.
“I’m not depressed or anything,” she said. “I’m just really disappointed about what I’m missing out on. I didn’t get to finish my basketball season.”
She had been a starter on the basketball team that would win her school’s first region championship this century. By the time that team reached the postseason, she had already had the surgery. When they played the opening game of the state tournament, all she could do was sit on the bench in her street clothes, her leg secured in a hip-to-ankle metallic brace.
“I’m glad that I was able to be there (for the playoff game) so shortly after the surgery, but…” Her voice trails off.
“It was cool that that they won a (region) championship, which nobody expected us to do after our program had been bad for so long. But, it’s like I was there but I wasn’t there.”
Her physical therapy started a couple weeks after the surgery. One of her physical therapists had had two ACL surgeries. (I guess that counts as bona fides.)
That’s when the numbers came in. How many steps can she take? How much weight will she be able to push with her legs? And the big one: To what angle can she bend the surgically repaired leg?
“They told me that my main goal was to get to 90 degrees. At first, that seemed like it would be impossible.”
There was always the pain, but the bending seemed unrealistic. It wasn’t as though she were being asked to stretch out a really stiff rubber band. It was more like being asked to bend a piece of rebar with her bare hands.
“It was just so stiff. It hurt even if I was just lying in bed, not moving. But when they told me to bend it, it was like a whole new adventure in pain. And then there were the noises!”
There is a thing called crepitus (which sounds like the name of an evil creature on a badly written show on the CW network). It’s the sound that comes from the knee under a variety of circumstances. It is almost always benign. It can be air bubbles that seeped into the soft tissue around the joint, combined with synovial fluid, and then popped when standing up or during exercise. It generally happens to older people, but it is also common for people who have knee replacements or other forms of knee surgery.
“I hate those sounds. I still remember the popping sound that I heard and felt when I first hurt my knee. I don’t ever want to feel that again.”
She put in the work and began to show progress. She got to 60 degrees, then 75. Things got somewhat better, both physically and mentally. She blew right past 90 degrees and her best to this point is 129 degrees. (Really?! Why not 130?!)
Eventually, they want her to get to 180 degrees, the angle achieved when one is sitting on the floor, their legs bent underneath them.
There is a fraternity (or sorority) of fellow athletes who have endured the surgery and the recovery and come out the other side. Danielle spoke with Navine Mallon, a junior at Flowing Wells who is this year’s Class 5A State Player of the Year in basketball. Navine tore her ACL her freshman year, got the surgery, and was back within eight months. Her knee hasn’t given her any problems since the surgery. Besides basketball, she is currently one of the top throwers (shot put, discus) in the State.
But then there’s Mariah Clark, who led Pueblo to the State Championship game back in 2018. She was going to play for Pima, but tore her ACL. After rehabbing, she tragically suffered another ACL tear. She’s hoping to play this coming winter.
Danielle has a schedule, but, in her mind, it stretches out ahead of her like infinity. There’s talk of eight months, which would be the middle of volleyball season. But, more realistically, she is hoping to be back for basketball, which has its first games the week of Thanksgiving. If that were to happen, she would have plenty for which to be thankful.