Friday, March 7, 2008

French surgeons rebuilt Adam McGrath's knee after a snowboarding accident last month, but he hopes to be back on his board next season

Adam McGrath is 29 and has snowboarded since he was 15. He broke his leg snowboarding in Tignes on February 24.

"It was the last day of a lads’ snowboarding weekend and four of us were in a board park above Tignes Val Claret. I was feeling cocky – I’ve had boarding accidents before – twice cracking my skull – but it’s never dented my confidence.

There’s always a big jump at the end of these parks, and this one had an “Experts Only” sign. My friend Adie went ahead with a camera and egged Chris and I to have a go. I went first and got far too much air and not enough distance so landed on the flat instead of the slope.

My front leg landed straight and took the impact.

I didn’t hear any cracks but my knee felt like things were in the wrong place. I got out of my board and realised I couldn’t stand. My friends carried me to a restaurant 20 yards away and after a few minutes it was clear I’d need help getting down. I still didn’t realise it was broken– I thought it was dislocated.

I’d hoped to get a skidoo down but a blood wagon appeared - so it was headfirst down the mountain to the Tignes medical centre. An Aussie was towing me – a nice guy called Ed. He packed my leg in this beanbag contraption that you squeeze the air from, then it goes solid around the break.

An ambulance took me to the centre where there were others with broken arms and legs. It took 30 minutes for an x-ray to confirm that I’ve pulverised (the doctor’s phrase) the top of my tibia where it meets my knee, the tibial plateau. But before that was the painful part – getting my board boots and trousers off.

The doctor said I’d need surgery in Bourg St Maurice, but he didn’t sound optimistic. By this time my parents had arrived – they own the chalet in Tignes Les Brevieres where we were staying. The surgeon said we’d be better off in a specialist clinic in Aix les Bains, but said we’d have to pay a surcharge to get there because the Carte Neige insurance that comes with the ski pass only covers transport to the nearest available hospital.

We paid the E316 but had to wait for four hours until the ambulance would take us. They couldn’t leave Tignes until the lifts had closed in case someone else had an accident. Finally, with sirens and lights blaring we got to Clinique Herbert at 10pm and the doctor chastised the ambulance drivers for not getting me there sooner.

Surgery was scheduled for the next afternoon. I was told an epidural would be best to aid my recovery and avoid DVT, but in hindsight a general anaesthetic would have saved me the worst ordeal of my life.

I had a reaction to the drug and my skin crawled – to stop me twitching they strapped down my arms and then for five hours I could smell burning flesh, feel the tourniquet tight around my leg and hear drilling and the odd “merde” among the French chatter. In the end they sedated me because I became so anxious.

Aix les Bains is a picturesque French spa town, full of hospitals and convalescents, but I couldn’t get home sooner. I’m now staying with my parents – my London flat is up five flights of stairs.

It’ll be three months until I can put weight on my leg but within a week I was already up and about on crutches and I’ve started physio.

It’s probably a blessing to have had the surgery in France because although the language barrier was frustrating and at times distressing, the hospital was clean, I had a private room, and I had faith in the surgeons.

Since getting back I’ve found the English health system reluctant – I’ve been told I don’t need drugs I was prescribed in France, unless something goes wrong. It seems best practice in England is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, whereas in France they’re more precautionary.

The insurance company has been great – never thought I’d say that – but they helped get me home and will cover the £8,000-odd cost of the accident.

The long term prognosis is that I won’t be running marathons again, but I hope to be back snowboarding next season. You can forget the big jumps, though, I doubt I’ll be such a risk taker again."