We take off from Chiang Mai in thick, bright haze. The heat wicks your breath away like a kick to the stomach and the street outside our shop is festooned in fallen wires.
A summer storm cell came through days ago, snapping the concrete electricity poles like twigs.Read more: Knee Down
I was up on the mountain, and only saw the bruised skies hanging over town in the distance. Spits of rain hit our goggles and leaves flew sideways but nothing worse befell us as we gasped for breath on sweaty single track. It was a blissful afternoon to finish my riding season: one last ride, one last customer, pulling the clutch to quiet the engine as we passed smiling monks in the forest.
But now I’m in the hazy skies, on my way to the operating theatre.
More than nine months ago I damaged my knee in Cambodia. It involved a present log, a missing rock and a flight of stairs, and the result was not good. For one month I was stuck in the Khmer kingdom, unable to ride my 690 around it and unable to ride my 690 out of it. Eventually I made the teeth gritting trip to the border, sustained only by an endless string of expletives which I shouted inside my helmet to ward off the pain of my knee. On the other side of Thai customs, P’Lah loaded my bike into the back of the truck and drove me back home to Chiang Mai.
The first hospital I went to was in Cambodia. My expectations were not high, and they were validated by the diagnostic process: you can kind of walk, thus you’re fine.
Next, I went to a French physiotherapist in Cambodia. He examined my knee and told that it was merely a strain: I just had to rest it for six weeks, and the strained ligaments would heal up on their own.
Three months later, it still wasn’t right. I had stiffness, instability, and pain on lifting heavy objects. I also had Thai health insurance, so I went down the hospital and spent a few quality hours in the waiting room. They gave me an X-ray and sent me down to see an orthopedic specialist. He asked me about my symptoms and examined the joint. Oh it’s fine, he told me. Just a few strained ligaments, nothing serious.
Six months later, I still couldn’t run, I still couldn’t lift; if I rode the CBR for days, my knee would get tight and ache. If I rode enduro, it hurt to dab and my knee would move in ways it shouldn’t.
It just wasn’t right.
So when I visited Australia in October, I dropped in on the physiotherapists at my old university. The guy looked at my knee, wriggled my knee cap with two fingers, and said: “You’ve got no ACL.”
So I went to get an MRI, and he was dead right. ACL completely resected in two pieces. Damage to my meniscus. Surgery time.
Now, if I were over 50 years old, lived in Scandinavia, didn’t ski and didn’t ride enduro, I’m told that surgery might not be necessary. However, I meet none of those qualifications, and frankly – according to me – I’m too old to have a gimpy knee for the rest of my life. I want to ride trials! I want to ride hard enduro! I want to be able to pick up heavy motorbikes through my knees and not my back. I need to be able to walk downhill in enduro boots to rescue my beetled customers.
But if only making the decision to get the surgery were the easy part.
My first option would be surgery in Australia. On the plus side, it’s free and very high quality. On the down side, I have no way of knowing or controlling when I’ll get a slot for surgery, and the consequences of that could be disastrous. My life and my business are in Thailand. Can I afford to hang out in Australia for months waiting for surgery? I cannot. Can I afford to get the surgery so late in the year that it takes me out of action for next tour season? I cannot.
The next option would be surgery at my insured hospital in Thailand. Remember that hospital? The one where the orthopedic specialist said there was absolutely nothing wrong with my knee? Yeah, that didn’t fill me with confidence. No way am I letting them near me with a scalpel.
So I went down to the private hospital in Chiang Mai, where everything is world class, including the prices. I spoke to the nice doctors, took the quotation home and filed it under “In My Dreams”.
Frankly, I was feeling pretty morose about the whole thing. I went back to working the tour season, despite the surgeon’s instructions about getting the operation immediately. Surgeries don’t grow on trees, and goodness knows that the first year of running a small business won’t make you rich enough for that sort of thing either.
It was then that I got a call from a friend of mine. She was on a mountain with a bunch of friends and a broken down scooter: could we please bring the truck and the ramps? Of course we could. Off we went, and on top of the mountain I found her there with our lovely Vietnamese friend Hana, and several more of Hana’s visitors from Vietnam.
Sometime in the course of that evening, I happened to mention my knee surgery dilemma to – as it turns out – exactly the right person. “Oh, my friend is an orthopedic surgeon in Ho Chi Minh,” he told me. “You can get your knee surgery done there for half the price and the quality is very good.”
So where am I now?
Ho Chi Minh. We’ve started our descent.
I check into the hospital tomorrow.