some advice for Tony Stewart

Anybody that knows me fairly well knows that I think our society’s sports fetish is out of control and the amount of money some of these athletes get paid and the adoration heaped upon them is utterly obscene.

However, due to my day job as a kind of journalist, I cover several major sports – football (college & pro), basketball (college & pro), baseball (pro), hockey (pro) & auto racing. When it comes to racing news, sometimes I throw in some motorcycle or Formula 1 racing, but the client really expects a NASCAR-focused feed.

It’s in that context, then, that I read about (and reported on) Tony Stewart’s crash Monday night in Iowa. Today, news is out that he’s had a 2nd surgery, in a hospital in North Carolina, to insert what in the orthopedic business is called a “tibial nail.”

Allow me to illustrate:

X-ray of a tibial nail insertion.

This is a scan of an x-ray of my left leg; the x-ray was done in May 1999 after I underwent the exact same surgery Tony Stewart just had.

What they do is pretty simple. First, they drill a hole down the middle of the tibia – however many pieces it’s in, they all get the drill. Then they insert this rod, maybe 14 or 15 inches long and up to 3/4 of an inch wide, into the bone through that hole. Then they secure both ends of it with screws and sew the recipient back up.

In the orthopedic world, it’s a pretty straightforward surgery. For the recipient, though, it’s an utterly traumatic event.

Like Tony Stewart’s, my tibial “nail” (why they don’t just call it a “rod” I’ll never know) started with a crash. Unlike Tony Stewart, though, I was neither racing nor at fault (not that I’m blaming Stewart for his crash, but, well, you know, he was racing!). I was merrily riding along on my bright yellow & white motorcycle, safely & comfortably wearing my bright yellow helmet when an old lady decided she was going to drive through the intersection I was riding through.

Enough about me, though. I’m 13 years post-op (I had a larger, longer rod inserted in 2000 to improve stabilization) and am doing fine.

These titanium beauties are put in to somebody’s leg every week and they work just fine. As a matter of fact, many of them get left in for the rest of the recipient’s life.

I’m here to offer some advice and a little consolation for Tony Stewart. I’ve been where you are, man, and I sympathize. Granted, I didn’t have access to the doctors that you have, but my orthopedic surgeon was damn good.

(An aside – when I was lying in the hallway behind the emergency room on the day of my wreck (I was covered with gasoline & stank to high heaven as a result), the orthopedic doctor on call, after finally getting my x-rays, came to check me out. We chatted a bit (he was the 5th person that morning to ask me if I knew the date & who the president was) and he looked at my chart. He said “I’m going to lift the blanket now and take a look at your leg. Don’t worry, I won’t touch it.”  He then lifted the blanket and looked at my leg. I saw his face go white and after a few seconds he said, “Um… I’m … ah … I’m gonna have to go get my boss.” Not exactly a reassuring way to talk to the patient, but in retrospect it was awfully funny.)

Tony, you’re in for a hard road to recover from this. You’ve got a badly broken leg and even with the rod in there, it’s going to take a while to heal. When you’re allowed to put weight on it again, probably in 6 to 8 weeks, you’re going to start physical therapy.

Make sure you get a beautiful young female physical therapist. There’s two reasons for that: 1) Everybody wants a beautiful young woman to like them and think they’re manly, so you’ll be less inclined to cry in front of her. Believe me, Tony, it’s going to hurt so bad you WILL want to cry. A lot. 2) Because you’re a man, you’re going to work harder to please this beautiful young woman. It’s subconscious, I think, but incredibly motivating.

(My physical therapist, Amy, was not only beautiful and young, but she was an incredibly talented and knowledgable physical therapist. It’s not hyperbole when I say that without Amy’s skills, I wouldn’t be able to walk without a cane today – if at all. She hurt me a lot over the three months I went to her, and I freely admit that I cried in front of her more than once – including after our last session together. Usually it was the pain that brought on the tears, but not at that last meeting. I was genuinely overcome with emotion at the gift this woman gave me – the ability to walk again.)

Once you’ve secured your beautiful young female physical therapist, do everything she tells you to do and do it over and over and over again for as long as it takes to get your leg back. It’ll never be 100% again, but come on, Tony, all you really do with it is mash the accelerator, right?  OK, OK I’m just kidding.  If you take your rehab seriously, you’ll be back on your feet in a few months and with a little hard work, I think you’ll be back on the grid at the start of next season.

Tony, you can do this. You’ll be OK. Really. If I can come back from severe leg trauma (and mine was a nasty, open fracture), then you can. You’re young, you’re strong and you’re already in pretty good health.

As a last bit of advice, don’t bother with a wheelchair and get rid of those shitty armpit-killing crutches they’re going to give you. Get a pair like people with polio use, the ones that have that little forearm cuff on them. They’re way better and will help you keep your arm strength up while you’re rehabbing. You can totally borrow mine if you want, I’ve hung on to them for over a decade & even my stepfather used them when he got his knee replaced. They’re awesome.

Try to stay positive, Tony. It’s going to be a long year, but I’m here if you need anything. Feel free to call or email.

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