Valjean Clark

Learning to ask for help

This is part of an ongoing series of posts on what I have learned from an ongoing, chronic knee problem. This post describes how I injured my knee and has links to the posts I have written about other lessons I have learned.

Perhaps the biggest lesson in my ongoing knee saga is this: learn to ask for help.

I’ve never been great at asking for help. When faced with a problem or a conundrum, I usually try to solve it on my own. I read books, academic papers, blog posts, and forums. This has served me well to a degree in life. It has made me self-sufficient and able to dive deep on sny topic when I need to learn more about something. But there are situations in life that warrant asking for help, and considering an invasive surgery or medical intervention is absolutely one such situation.

When I tore my ACL, I spoke to an orthopedic doctor and two different surgeons at Kaiser (a large, vertically integrated insurer and provider in the United States). They told me about the different graft types and gave me conflicting suggestions. To try to understand my options better, I started reading academic papers on the tradeoffs in different graft types, and I found lots of other resources about ACL surgeries and rehab.

In retrospect, what I should have done, in addition to all the reading I did, is ask for help! Since all my complications after my first surgery, I’ve found support groups online and I’ve listened to the stories of friends and colleagues have had the surgery. I’ve spoken to dozens of helpful internet strangers with their own complicated knee stories. It turns out that people will talk to you about their experience and surprise you with their generosity and time. I’ve had great discussions with fellow ACLers on Reddit. I’ve spoken to a leading researcher on knee pain in Australia after a cold email. I’ve met with some of the best knee surgeons and physical therapists on the west coast.

In particular, I should have found experts and sought their opinion. Surgeons and physical therapists usually have reasonable consultation fees, even outside of insurance, to seek second (or third, fourth, fifth…) opinions. While I am a fast learner, nothing is a substitute to talking to a knee surgeon who has performed hundreds of knee surgeries, or a physical therapist who has taken hundreds of patients through ACL rehab.

As my most recent surgeon said to me, you can find a paper backing up pretty much anything you want to believe. You have to know which papers and meta-analyses to trust, and more importantly, you just need hard-won experience and knowledge.

Of course, this isn’t the whole picture of what you need to improve your odds of a successful surgery, or any other medical intervention.

You need to find the best care and be willing to put in the work. It takes work to find a physical therapist and surgeon who are highly skilled and really care about what they do and about getting great patient outcomes.

This deserves its own post, but I’ll mention it here because it’s related: don’t be cheap. Part of realizing that you need help to make a good decision is being willing to spend a little money to give you access to the advice you need. Saving a few hundred dollars by convincing yourself you don’t need a second opinion is just not worth it when you consider the costliness in terms of time and life impact of a poorly executed surgery or physical therapy program.

So, ask for help, don’t be cheap, and remember that you’re not alone! I suppose that’s good advice for all the trials we face in life.