Everything happens for a reason.
On March 30, 2017, I was replacing a battery in a security camera high above the patio in our back yard. While doing this work, the extension ladder on which I stood buckled and dropped me 18 feet below onto paver bricks. As I hit the patio, a white-hot pain shot through my left ankle. I knew it was bad news when I tried to stand and couldn't put weight on my ankle.
Having heard the commotion, my wife, Sue, rushed out, helped me hobble to the car and drove me to the hospital. The emergency room physician ordered X-rays and then reported I had suffered a pilon fracture, a rare injury comprising only 3 to 10 percent of all fractures of the tibia and less than 1 percent of all lower extremity fractures. Translated, my ankle had broken in four places and ultimately would require a complicated surgery using plates and screws to knit it back together. (Adding insult to injury, the accident occurred on the final day National Ladder Safety Month.)
With my ankle loosely wrapped and the bones splayed apart deep inside the tissues, I was forced to wait several days before a consultation with my orthopedic surgeon. Given his busy schedule, I then endured another week awaiting surgery. In the interim, I was confined to a 6-by-12-foot area of the sectional in our living room, where I was moored day and night, my mind racing and my vulnerabilities tested to the limit.
I had surgery on April 11, 2017. Then came weeks of recovery and rehabilitation that would take me to November 2017, when I was released from treatment. As a life-long athlete, climber and hiker, I knew the importance of “doing the hard work” and following the orders my doctor and physical therapist had given. Ultimately, it would all pay off.
I remember the conversation with my surgeon prior to the three-hour procedure. “Will I be able to run again?” I asked. “Absolutely,” he said confidently, “It will take time but you’ll run again.” Knowing he’s a marathoner gave me assurance.
Fast forward to February 2020. I run again comfortably without pain, and I’m now getting ready for a 5K this spring. I weight train, too, and with the help of wonderful trainers over the past two years, I can push my legs and lower body through a regimen of heavy dead lifts, squats and other exercises. I follow a clean and lean diet and have shed almost 20 pounds since January.
The injury changed me. I had dark days and nights during my recovery. I was angry with myself for not being more careful on the ladder. I had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, navigated the Franz Josef Glacier and hiked the rugged Milford Track in New Zealand, rappelled at Devil's Lake in Wisconsin and rafted the whitewaters near Denali in Alaska – without incident or injury. Then I fell off a ladder in my backyard.
My limited mobility forced me to think about my life, my relationships and my expectations of others. Most importantly, it forced me to think about who I am and the road ahead in the next chapter of my life.
While they say there’s no medical evidence that a broken bone will be stronger once healed, my fractured ankle became a metaphor for how I want to deal with – and bring healing strength to – all the “broken” things in my life that still elicit great pain after many years. My injury was physical but it became a pathway for a deeper change that had been building for a lifetime. As Bobby Herrera, CEO of Populus Group, wrote in The Gift of Struggle: "I introduced the phrase ‘resetting the broken arm’ to remind us to break things in order to make them better.”
Normal again? What is normal?
Having grown up in a dysfunctional family with an abusive alcoholic father, I was the classic middle child – often caught up in the sometimes violent arguments between my parents and forced into the role of peacemaker. I became a people pleaser; constantly seeking the approval and affirmation of others rather than looking inside myself. I was hyper-critical. I was too serious and judged myself without mercy at times. I was competitive in every aspect of my life and not satisfied with anything less than "winning." It made me bitter, cynical and resentful of others. But I learned to hide it well. I wore the emotional “mask” donned by children of an alcoholic parent, and I wouldn’t let others inside my life.
I praise God for lighting my path through the darkest of times; for opening the right doors at the right time; for blessing me with my loving wife of 42 years, our children and grandchildren; for putting wonderful coaches, teachers, mentors, models and true friends in my life; and for placing me in great organizations where I could serve and lead others.
Over time, I’ve begun opening up more. In January, I wrote a LinkedIn post that professed what I know and believe deep inside: “The enemy against greatness is the unwillingness to change. We’ve got to be able to change some of the things that we’ve been doing to demand more from ourselves and become the people we want to be.”
With my LinkedIn post, I put a stake in the ground. A man named James Warda, a member who I follow, posed an appropriate challenge to what I had written: “Agreed, Keith. Any advice on how best to do that? :)“
It's a question I must answer for myself, and I hope it might help others. .
It’s said that the past announces the future and the future repeats the past. The future we build depends on what we learn from the past. In the days ahead I’ll share what I’m doing to take my leadership and my life forward in the year ahead.