Nick Carroll On: Little Tommy's Knee

28 Apr 2017 15 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Tom Carroll in the June 2016 swell, Photo by Cameron Bloom

Tom Carroll in the June 2016 swell, Photo by Cameron Bloom

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL FEATURE

My Brother's Knee

We’re all human, robot joints or not.

So it’s finally happened. Little Tommy Carroll is spread out on a rather expensive private hospital bed, a large strip bandage running down the centre of his right knee.

On Wednesday morning this week, a surgical team pushed an epidural needle into little Tommy’s spine, drenched him in general anaesthetic, cut off the base of his right femur and the summit of his right tibia, and with the help of laser guidance and GPS, fitted a titanium/cobalt joint in their place.

The surgery is a punctuation mark. It ends 40-some years of Tom’s struggle with this knee — a struggle that began with a wipeout at “Pissing Point”, Umina, and continued through a full knee reconstruction and ACL replacement, several arthroscopy clean-out procedures, and endless weights and Yoga sessions, as he tried to keep the unruly joint in line long enough to win all those Pipe Masterses and world titles, etc.

SEE ALSO: Nick Carroll, Barton Lynch & Richie Lovett Discuss The Australian World Tour Leg

It’s also a reminder: surfing might make us feel like we’re gonna live forever, but it’s as likely to wreck us as anything else.

Elite level surf injuries have changed a lot since the early ‘80s, when Tom was first battling back from the reconstruction. You can trace the changes directly to the changing styles of surfing through the period. Back then, a study done by the late Brian Lowdon of Deakin University showed the most common injury was a knee tweak — medial collateral ligament. These were the days of flat rockers, squatted-down techniques, power grovelling, and early floaters. In an awkward situation, your back foot would either slip off the tail or your entire leg would be compressed sideways along the board’s length, flexing the knee in ways it was never built to be flexed. The old Ace knee bandage was never so popular.

By the early 2000s, when the ASP’s then chiropractor Dean Innis undertook a similar study, he found the locus of injury had shifted away from the knee and toward the ankle joint and lower back. Deeper rockers, faster-twitch styles, late-drop tube riding and airs were changing the injury game as much as they were changing the judging criteria.

Today, the injuries are more extreme. Not so much at CT level (where the ankle’s still the big one) as in the increasingly occupied heavy-wave space. Behind all that charging at Shippies and Jaws and the Right are things you never saw last century. Impact injuries: broken femurs, broken backs, destroyed shoulders, concussions, ankle dislocations. Most of these injuries pass us by; they barely touch the radar screen, if they’re heard of at all.

Free-surfing Pipe? Every year, things happen like what happened to Kalani Chapman this season, the classic knock-out underwater to drowning combo. In that case, maybe having a crowd around you isn’t such a bad thing — there’s a better chance someone will see your board tombstoning.

I won’t even get into the fact that almost all these injuries are being racked up by males.

Meanwhile, the over-50s head for the orthopaedic specialist’s office, hoping to extract a few more years of magic out of the situation.

BL, for one instance, has a robot hip. The way Kelly Slater is moving around right now, it can’t be forever before he has some titanium in there as well.

Tom, being Tom — detail-oriented to the point of hypochondria — thought for years about the knee replacement. He would groan over the original version, which he had begun to call “the coconut” thanks to its bulbous shape, but was sketched by the alternative. “It’s weird,” he’d say, “it’ll change me forever! I don’t know if I want that!” He saw doctor after doctor, looking at the technology, waiting for a sign. One eventually came in the burly shape of Californian Allen Sarlo, who’d had a total knee replacement and started posting pictures of himself kite-surfing and ripping Sunset. This helped nudge Tom over the ledge.

“I’m 87% there!” Sarlo wrote on Facey yesterday.

It’ll be a while before TC is 87% there. But he got a little hint of the future late on Wednesday, when the nurses got him up and on a walker for the first step post-op.

He moved from the good leg to the robot version, and was shocked when it flexed back into a straight line — a normal movement denied to him by the old knee for so long he’d forgotten how to do it.

“The muscles weren’t ready,” he said. God help the northern beaches surf community when they are.

Tom post surgery, Photo by Nick Carroll

Tom post surgery, Photo by Nick Carroll


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