Why Self Advocacy is Crucial When Dealing With an Injury

Everyone will experience some type of injury in their lives. Dancers are even more prone to injury, due to the nature of the demands they put on their bodies. Even the best trained, physically fit dancers can experience dance injuries. Whether it’s years of wear and tear or the result of a traumatic event, it can be one of the hardest things you will go through. Beyond the physical recovery, the strain an injury puts on your emotional state can be devastating. The most important thing you can do is educate yourself, listen to your body, and practice self advocacy for your health care. As dancers, we have a keen understanding of our bodies. It is wise to trust that intuition, and to be proactive. After multiple muscle tears, sprains, and minor injuries, I suffered my biggest injury a couple of years ago. What I went through, and took away from that experience was eye-opening. 

On October 16th, 2017, as I led my Beginning Modern class through stretches following our warm-up, my life was forever changed. As I rotated from pigeon pose into a deep runner’s lunge, my right knee popped and my entire leg seized up. Going into immediate shock, I felt the blood drain out of my face, and my students knew right away something was seriously wrong. Having popped out my knee cap in the past, I wondered if I had done that again. I rapidly realized this was much more serious. 

Even though I felt like something was off, I made the mistake of remaining silent.

I was able to contact my husband who just so happened to be working in the theatre next door to me. Once I got into the car, my emotions began to flood and my fear began to skyrocket. We headed to the emergency room, where I was quickly told that it wasn’t my ACL. We took an x-ray to confirm no bones were broken, I was given crutches and was released from the ER. The next few days were a complete blur. My husband helped get necessary paperwork to fill out, as obviously this quickly became a worker’s comp case. The only hospital that accepts worker’s comp in town was an urgent care clinic that left much to be desired. The building was falling apart, and there was always a huge wait, even if you had an appointment. When I finally got into the patient room, after inevitably waiting even longer, I always received inadequate care. Because MRI’s are so expensive, I quickly learned that they will do everything to avoid them. After looking at my knee, and I mean just that…the physician’s assistant looked, I was prescribed physical therapy. 

At the recommendations of multiple colleagues, I was referred to a fantastic physical therapy practice. My twice-a-week appointments began, and so did my return to modified teaching. For FOUR MONTHS, I gained strength and mobility, but I knew it was far from healed. I kept returning to the urgent care, and was repeatedly told that as long as I was improving, there was no need for further tests. Even though I felt like something was off, I made the mistake of remaining silent and not using my voice to practice patient advocacy. My physical therapist finally went to bat for me, stating that if it were a minor injury, I would have been a lot better by then. In January of 2018, I finally went in for an MRI. The test confirmed that I had done the worst kind of meniscus tear possible, a bucket handle tear. I didn’t really understand the severity of the injury until I met with my surgeon shortly after. 

I had to remind myself that I am so much more than my job

My mom was a surgical nurse for about fifty years. I trust her opinion and advice more than anyone, especially when it comes to medical issues, so of course she was my first phone call (other than just needing to cry to my mom). She quickly reached out to the best knee surgeon she knew and worked with, and we got my reports sent to him for review. He said that he would be happy to try to help me, but with the extent of the injury, and the fact that I teach dance for a living, I needed the best of the best. That angel of a human was Dr. C, a specialist out of Sacramento, California. Jump to our first appointment. In our ten-minute consultation, he was able to clearly articulate to me what the injury was, and showed me with my scans how bad it was. Surgery was a must, especially if I wished to continue with my career. My operation was scheduled for March 14th, five months post-injury. It was going to be a long road to recovery and an even longer road to returning to the dance studio. 

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The day of the surgery, I had a ton of anxiety. This was the most significant injury I’d ever had, and the fact that it was a major joint raised the stakes. Dr. C came in to chat with me one final time before surgery, and that’s when he hit me with the biggest reality check. He told me that he wanted to remind me that he wouldn’t know if he could fix it until he got in there. The second part, and what made my heart sink, was that if he couldn’t fix it, I wouldn’t be able to teach dance for much longer. I was going to sleep, and wouldn’t know what my future looked like until I woke up. It was out of my hands, and I had to trust that they would do everything possible to fix me. As I fought through the blurry confusion of waking up in recovery, the first clear thing I remember is the sound of Dr. C’s voice. He said “Megan, everything went well, and I was able to repair it. You did great, and you’re all fixed. Now, do your physical therapy.” That’s all I needed to hear. I was the perfect patient from that day forward.

The major injury was repaired. The additional issues that arose because of it are on-going. I have a new reality that I had to get familiar with, but am eternally grateful for it. I can’t kneel anymore. I can never squat all the way down, or do a grand plié again. The way I get down to the floor and back up again has become very creative. But I am able to teach and choreograph, and there is no greater gift than that. I got incredibly lucky within this unlucky situation. I researched doctors, I got a second opinion (and third, and fourth), and began researching alternative healing practices. It was important that I remained open to any type of healing, and that I was working with professionals that were familiar with dancers and our unique needs. I discovered many types of therapy that have been very successful for me and I continue to use to this day. I keep up with my physical therapy, and apply it to other major areas of the body in an effort to prevent future injuries. 

The most important thing you can do is educate yourself, listen to your body, and practice self advocacy for your health care.

So here are ten tips that helped me through my injury recovery that I want to pass on to you:

  1. There’s no way to be fully prepared for an injury -- especially when it comes to the mental and emotional strength it requires. The best you can do is use this time to work on self discovery and learn more about your identity, beyond just being a dancer. Having to be out from work and away from my students was difficult. I had to remind myself that I am so much more than my job, and if something were to take this career away from me, I would still be okay. 
  2. Self advocacy is imperative. Nobody can sense your body better than you can so be sure to speak up when you feel like something is off. I never fully felt right throughout my process, and I wish I would have spoken up sooner. There’s no point in dwelling in the past, but I can’t ignore the fact that had I fought harder, the entire length of my healing process and time away from work would have been a quarter of what it was.
  3. Find the doctor/surgeon that is right for you and practice patient advocacy. Always seek a second or third opinion because patient education is just as crucial as finding trusted professionals. Patient reviews are often easily accessible, but that only tells you someone else’s experience. You must find someone that you can learn to trust. Remain open, ask tons of questions, and listen to your intuition. Having the personal reference for my surgeon from someone I trusted helped, but I also had to meet him in person to know he was the right one for me.
  4. At a certain point, you must let go and put your faith in the professionals. I’m a Type A personality AND a Virgo. This does not make it easy for me to let go of control. As I prepped for surgery and recovery, I made a list of the things that I could control and the things that I could not. I had to learn how to be a patient, and as long as I followed the directions, I would be moving forward in a positive way.
  5. Trust your gut. I reached out to my surgeon multiple times after the surgery. Whether it was a shift in medication, or a concern about my stitches, I was always put at ease once I could discuss it with him.
  6. You can’t rush it; you must accept it. Full recovery takes time and patience for your body. Once you experience an injury, the chances of re-injuring to that area are much higher. Invest the time and energy towards feeling 100% before you jump back into dancing. You are not a doctor. Even if you feel better sooner than you’re allowed to return to normal activity, don’t. My continually re-injured hamstrings can attest to that. My time on bed rest and then crutches felt like a century. Looking back now, it was a blink of time. Your mindset will help make the time pass faster. 
  7. Do your physical therapy and diagnosed exercises for injury treatments; I can’t emphasize this enough. Disciplining myself to set aside the time, multiple times throughout the day, to do the same exercises over and over took work. The repetition and purpose behind all of my homework was detrimental to my recovery. 
  8. Be calm, practice meditation and acceptance because change is unavoidable. I’m not going to lie and say this one is easy. There will be days that you’ll cry, scream, and throw a full-blown pity party for yourself. It’s okay. Letting your emotions out is necessary to letting the negative ones go. If I had a really bad day, I would acknowledge it, then remind myself that the type of energy I was creating was not helpful to my healing process. Through diving into reading, enjoying new television shows, and talking things out with family members, I was able to survive. You are so much stronger than you know.
  9. Share your experience, and help those around you. My students have heard all sorts of stories about my injuries. I’ve also been able to relate to and bond with other people who have shared similar experiences. Sharing my story helped shed light on someone else’s experience, and hearing their story certainly gave me strength. You’re not alone.
  10. Be grateful for what you do have. Don’t focus on the negative, move forward with the positive. Everyday, I would acknowledge the blessings I have, no matter how big or small. Right when my world felt like it was collapsing in on me, I looked at the plethora of positive things I had in my life. There was always something positive to take away, even if it was just a snuggle from my dog, or extra time I got with my husband because I was home. Heck, that morning cup of coffee tastes better if you take a moment to be grateful for it.

Instead of feeling sorry for myself while I was recovering from injury, I actively worked daily at focusing on the gifts I do have. Through the pain, frustration, anxiety, and depression, I walked away with many positive lessons. Remember that everything is temporary, and you always have a choice when it comes to how you handle the things life throws at you. Always listen to your body, and never stop learning about it.

About the author

Megan Glynn Zollinger holds a BA in Dance from Chapman University, and an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine. At UCI, Megan worked directly under the tutelage of Donald McKayle, who was her thesis mentor and advisor. Formerly an Assistant Professor of Dance and the Director of the BFA Dance program at Colorado Mesa University, Megan is currently an Assistant Professor of Dance at Chico State. A native of Napa, CA, Megan began dancing at the age of four and by the time she was 15, she was teaching and choreographing. Megan’s training was focused in commercial dance, as well as musical theatre and voice. She is an active member of NDEO, ACDA, and MTEA.