Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'
I was the stereotypical accident-prone kid. As a teenager, I seemingly spent as much time in the emergency department as I did at the neighbor kids' houses. This had much to do with my misconception that I actually could play basketball. But that's not where the story of Charles Eberling, PT, begins. That seed was planted in 1998, when I was 19.
I was one of the (self-imagined) cool kids who rode his motorcycle everywhere. Late one November night, I was coming home from work and decided to stop off at a store. As I was waiting for the traffic to clear so I could turn into the parking lot, I was struck from behind by a car traveling at a very high rate of speed. How high? Fast enough that my tan jacket had blue paint streaks on it—the color of the drunk driver's vehicle. The minutes, hours, even years afterward are forever embedded in my mind as the most terrifying, then agonizingly difficult, times I ever would experience.
As I crawled into the parking lot to avoid being hit again, the realization of what just had happened began to set in. My worst fears were confirmed at the hospital. My right leg had taken the brunt of the impact. I had an open fracture a few inches above the ankle. The tibia shattered and the fibula was broken at mid-shaft and the distal end. I had a few breaks in my right foot. A minor fracture in the left tibia. Some nerve damage that would cause me to lose feeling in my arms for 3 weeks. I'd bitten through my tongue. I also ended up with gangrene.
It was a very long road to recovery. I had 16 operations in 7 months to rid my leg of damaged tissue and improve the vascular blood supply. Thanks to the skills of several amazing surgeons, I was able to keep my leg. It's 2 inches shorter now and isn't pretty, but it's mine.
"How long did it take you in physical therapy to regain some sense of normalcy?" you may wonder. The answer is complicated. The only time I saw a physical therapist (PT) was just before I was discharged from the hospital, to ensure that I could walk with crutches. I never set foot in an outpatient clinic. I was in a wheelchair for nearly 6 months, followed by about 13 months on crutches. My orthopedic surgeon just kept telling me he wanted me to be non-weight bearing on my recovering leg.
Finally, I was fed up. I told him I was going to start walking. He advised me to be careful and to take my time. I did, sort of. Within a month I bought a cane. Two months later, I tossed it in the closet—for good. I think it was then that my emotional and mental healing really started taking off.
This is where my PT identity took root. I came out of my experiences determined to help people undergoing their own tough recoveries. I recently graduated from Arcadia University in Pennsylvania and now work at a rehabilitation center. I know what it's like to be broken and at one's darkest emotional place. I also know what it's like to work hard and to reap huge benefits from those efforts.
I've inspired patients by showing them, "If Charlie could do it, so can I." I wake up energized every day and thankful for the role I play. I love knowing that I'm making a difference. I look back to that fateful night and think something very good came from all that pain.
Charles Eberling, PT, DPT, is employed at The Rehab Center in Ephrata, Pennsylvania.