Dr. Heather Holmstrom has been a natural athlete her whole life and always could jump into any sports and other activities she fancied – from mountain biking, to soccer and hockey.
“I ran, skied, skated, biked and did a ton of dog rescue, whatever I wanted without limitation,” said Holmstrom, a family doctor at UCHealth Family Medicine Clinic in Boulder.
She grew up riding horses and was part of the University of Michigan’s equestrian team in college.
How athletes can cope with tough injuries: Dr. Holmstrom’s RX
- Get moving as soon as possible again.
- After surgery, fight to stay fit.
- Swim as soon as possible after an injury.
- Try chair boxing if you can’t stand up.
- Find a new way to enjoy your old sport (like coaching instead of skating yourself).
- Enlist friends and family to help you discover new passions like hiking.
- A bucket list helps lift your spirits. Write down your goals and celebrate your accomplishments as you achieve them.
- Try a variety of methods to handle your pain and your anguish. Meditation, yoga and physical therapy are all extraordinarily helpful.
- Think outside the box. Find new ways to work out and seek new sources of joy.
- Help others and you will heal faster.
Then, this easy-going athlete suffered an injury that shook up her routine and made her appreciate the struggles of patients who have to pause before heading out for a run or cruising down the slopes.
One night back in 2010, Holmstrom was playing ice hockey for a different league than her normal one. An inexperienced skater darted in front of her and Holmstrom threw all her weight to one side to avoid hitting the other skater.
That’s when lousy luck spelled disaster.
“In a moment, I hit a chip on the ice. I felt my fibula break over my skate,” Holmstrom said. “I flipped over on my back and when I came to a stop, everything inside my hockey skate was broken and jutting out to the side.”
A single mom, Holmstrom called her own mom from the ambulance and asked if she could fly in to help.
“My whole life had just changed,” Holmstrom said.
Holmstrom suffered from a terrible injury known as a trimalleolar fracture dislocation because she had breaks in three bones of the ankle called the malleoli, and had dislocated her ankle joint and also had a significant nerve injury.
That one fall has led to six surgeries and Holmstrom knows all too well what it’s like to be a patient.
She now copes with chronic regional pain syndrome, lymphedema, chronic neuropathic pain and bad arthritis.
“Pretty much any complication you’ve heard of has been part of my story,” Holmstrom said. “At one point, I got a bad wound infection and had to have my then-14-year-old pack my wound every day. He did not feel that this was a ‘normal’ after school activity, but he helped me like a champ.”
That son, Sage Garrett, is now 19 and a student at University of Colorado. Holmstrom has an older son, Grey Garrett, 23, who is a graduate student in engineering at CU. Both boys have been rocks of support, gamely helping with chores and encouraging Holmstrom to keep moving and keep healing.
“It’s definitely a family effort and I’m so grateful for help from both of them,” she said
Holmstrom now knows all too well what it’s like to cope with such bad pain that you can’t sleep.
“I have literally spent months and months on crutches, sharing many of the same frustrations people with disabilities experience in terms of accessibility. I can empathize and sympathize with a lot of people. Thankfully, I am extremely sensitive to medication and narcotics cause violent vomiting, so I have been saved from the narcotic addition that can happen with this injury,” Holmstrom said.
In addition to all the pain, Holmstrom has had to cope with her new identity and her new reality. Athletes are used to being able to move and run easily. When Holmstrom was sidelined, she had to make peace with all sorts of limitations and new devices she needed just to get around.
“I have all the tools in the world: braces, pumps and orthotics,” she said.
Sadly, she can’t put on a hockey skate or a ski boot without crying out in pain. (She suffers through the pain to ski, but no longer skates.) She can’t feel much below the knee on her right foot.
“I can’t do so many things that I used to do, and I have to live with everything this ankle has contributed to my life. But, along the way I have used physical therapy, yoga, meditation, massage, resiliency books, conditioning, and a bunch of other tools to learn to live life the way it is now,” Holmstrom said.
She also learned to love hockey in a new way. She and Sage, the son who helped nurse her through her injury, teamed up to coach and support a sled hockey team for kids who can’t play stand-up hockey. Holmstrom found joy in helping others enjoy competition on ice.
“I am a big believer that even if you think life isn’t fair, there are so many things you can do and so many ways to love, find joy and contribute to life.”
Holmstrom moved from Michigan to Boulder about a year ago, and she couldn’t help but be inspired by the world-class athletes who live and train in Boulder. Many of them love to hike. For Holmstrom, hiking uphill is bearable, but heading back down is painful.
Even so, in the spring, Holmstrom decided to try hiking Boulder’s Mt. Sanitas.
She was determined to go on one particular day. It had snowed recently and a work colleague scouted the trail to make sure Holmstrom would be safe.
She decided to go for it.
“It took forever, but I did it!” Holmstrom said.
When she got home and was scrolling through Facebook, a memory popped up. It was a reminder that she had suffered her debilitating ankle injury exactly eight years earlier. The hike reminded Holmstrom that she has new joys to experience, new challenges to face and literally new hills to climb.
While Holmstrom wishes she could erase the accident, she knows her experiences have made her a better doctor.
“My mantra is that I am willing to do anything to help patients realize they can do more than they think they can,” Holmstrom said. “I encourage people to push their therapists to help them do more.”
She learned the high cost of losing her conditioning after surgeries and worked hard to get back in shape as fast is possible. Swimming is great after an injury and Holmstrom encourages everyone with an injury to get in the water as soon as they get the go-ahead from their physical therapist or doctor.
“I also became an expert at chair boxing in the winter months so my core didn’t get too weak and my upper body didn’t get tendonitis from using the crutches,” Holmstrom said.
And, she learned to dismiss unhelpful comments from people, like when they said, “It could be worse.”
“Sure, it could be worse. But that doesn’t mean your situation isn’t really hard. Sometimes, acknowledging that what you’re facing is hard helps you assess and prioritize what could be better about it. Then you can try to make it better,” Holmstrom said.
Since she’s a medical expert, Holmstrom knows her ankle will continue to get worse. So, she has reorganized her bucket list and is setting her sights on her biggest goals first.
She’s starting very big. Holmstrom has been hiking more and more and it’s getting easier. So, in the spring, she plans to hike the Inca Trail in Peru to reach Machu Picchu, one of the world’s most famous United Nations World Heritage sites.
Both her sons plan to join her on the expedition.
“I have connected with a new orthopedist, physical therapist and orthoticist to support me so I can make this trip,” Holmstrom said. “I don’t know how much longer I will be able to do something like this, so carpe diem!”
She is grateful to live in Colorado where there is a great culture for getting outside and making the most of life, whatever your abilities.
For others coping with injuries, Holmstrom encourages them to go ahead and mourn for what they’ve lost, then get busy finding new sources of joy.
“Think outside the box,” she said.