Tina Fleming, front and center, is shown here with a group of supporters who have pledged to hike the Franconia Ridge Trail with her in June. Fleming has undergone a transformation over recent months in preparation for the hike. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
Rare ankle replacement proves life-changing for Laconia’s Tina Fleming
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
BELMONT — Tina Fleming had always been an active person who enjoyed the outdoors – then her life was thrown for a loop in March of 2008, when a horse-riding accident shattered her ankle.
Doctors used a series of screws and plates to pin her bones back together, but the fix didn’t last. Arthritis soon set in, and within a few years after her accident it became too painful for her to walk even moderate distances.
One of Fleming’s lowest points came when she determined that she would hike Mount Major, a light and easy hike for most people. Not for her – she had to hobble back down the mountain, crying because she was in so much pain.
But that’s not the Tina Fleming of today.
Today, Fleming is slim and fit, and, at 43, is preparing to tackle the popular but difficult Franconia Ridge Loop, a 9-mile, all-day hike in the White Mountains. The hike, which will take place during the last week of June and with a growing group of friends and supporters, will be the exclamation mark at the end of a period of renewal for Fleming.
The past year was a difficult one for Fleming. She finally found a doctor who was willing to do a total ankle replacement, which is a rare joint replacement, even rarer for patients as young as her. But then she was laid off from her position as a reading specialist at Laconia Middle School, and had to deal with the transition of her oldest child leaving for college while her youngest joined her middle child in high school.
Then things started to settle. The school district was able to transfer her into the role of librarian at LMS – a job that she has found she loves, her son adapted to college life, and her two daughters, both in high school now, actually started getting along for a change.
One day this fall, she had a revelation: in the same way that having children changed her life, having her children grow more independent meant she could change her life again.
“Everyone’s OK, change is OK, we’re going to survive this,” she recalled thinking. “Now it’s time to focus on me.”
Since then, her alarm has gone off at 4 a.m. each morning so that she can get to the gym before school. She also has adopted an eating pattern that combines intermittent fasting and ketogenic diet.
Intermittent fasting is an eating strategy that restricts calorie consumption to a specific window of each day. Fleming only eats from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; outside of that window, she consumes only non-caloric liquids.
When she does eat, she follows a “keto” plan, which greatly restricts carbohydrates, while encouraging fats and protein. The diet was developed nearly a century ago to reduce the risk of seizures for epilepsy patients, and is often used today as a weight loss strategy effective for some people. Since starting her ketogenic diet in October, Fleming has lost more than 30 pounds.
Early morning workouts, fasting and ketogenic eating all sound like difficult changes to make in a person’s life. More difficult, though, has been her blog, “Journey to a Goal,” which she started in November. She’s a sensitive person and fears that opening up about her life will expose her to unwanted criticism. She does it as a way to keep herself accountable, and because she hopes that someone who reads it might be inspired to effect a change in their own lives.
“I’ve gone through a long road to get here,” she said. “Last year was a hard year. This is my way of pulling myself back together.
One step after another
Josh Brooks, a physical therapist in Gilford and a partner in Granite State Physical Therapy, said he has seen many patients who have reached a physical low point, often due to an injury, then rebound.
People tend to deal with a problem with their body in stages that parallel the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Most new patients are in either the denial or anger stage when they first enter his practice, Brooks said.
“Not everyone gets to this stage of acceptance and renewal,” said Brooks. Some do, though. He has seen patients who needed help at one point to get out of their car later be able to ski. Another man needed to learn how to walk after having a leg amputation – soon he was back on the golf course.
“Many times I’ve seen patients who have gone on to do incredible things after suffering traumatic events,” he said. The recovery involves not just physical repair, it also requires mental and emotional work for the patient to accept their reality and then find a way to work with it.
It often takes determination, as was the case with Fleming, who was turned away by several surgeons who didn’t want to replace the ankle of someone so young, because they don’t know how long the artificial joint will last.
“When you feel like you don’t have the answers, you just haven’t found the right person yet. Keep searching for answers and solutions to keep moving forward,” said Brooks. “Many times (patients) feel like they’ve exhausted the knowledge of everyone around them. They just need to find the right person to move on to the next step.”
Fleming, who leads a robotics club at LMS and also has a small family farm, has somehow found time this winter to hike all of the peaks of the Belknap Range in preparation for her Franconia Ridge goal. She’s still intimidated by the hike, but calms herself by focusing on her next step.
“Isn’t life kind of like that? You have to go forward, and make the best of it,” she said.
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