Regular fitness and gas analyser tests are a staple part of being a firefighter, so when Lisa Watson failed one after almost 20 years as an on-call firefighter, she knew she had to push herself to her limit to get back on track.
Sadly, when she began training hard for an interim bleep test, an old injury that had developed into arthritis over the years began to flare up and she had to step back from the work she loved altogether.
Having known about the Charity’s support during her time in Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service, Lisa, who works as a gardener outside of her fire service hours, sought expert help to build her fitness back up.
“It’s not been right for the whole of my service,” says Lisa, 54. “I joined just after a bad fall off a horse and I turned down surgery at that time in favour of physio.
“I don’t know what they would have done at the time, but it did get gradually better with physio. However, I know from doing exercises and after spin classes, I don’t have the same range of movement in one leg as I do in the other.
“It’s got worse over time but I flared it up at the onset of Covid because I failed a gas analyser test by one mark and they said, as an interim measure, you can do the bleep test.
“I started running twice a week, I was fairly fit anyway, but it had largely been low-impact exercises like spinning, rowing, walking and weights, which had kept the knee fairly happy.
“The running truly overcooked it and actually flared both knees up. I was in a lot of pain, on strong painkillers for two months. Then, because of the pandemic, it was a long time before I could get an X-ray or MRI, or even be face-to-face with a doctor.
“I eventually had an X-ray that revealed mild osteoarthritis in all three chambers of the knee, which may be typical of someone my age, and then I got the MRI which showed severe patellofemoral osteoarthritis. It probably harps right back to the riding accident.”
Lisa eventually reached out to the Charity for support, having realised she may face an end to her fire career, and was offered a place at Jubilee House, our centre in Cumbria. We caught up with her while she was there…
“The guys this week have been incredible,” says Lisa. “I had a couple of sessions with a physio before I came here, over video calls, which meant they could assess me and they spotted something even the NHS physio hadn’t. My glutes weren’t firing up, so the muscular issues through my legs were worse than I thought.
“I’ve now got a full exercise program, which I’ve expanded here alongside therapies. They’ve basically loosened up a lot of tightness but I need to keep it going at home.”
At the point Lisa visited Jubilee, she had been off work as an on-call firefighter for over a year, which she says was “really difficult”. However, having been given expert advice and exercises, she began to hope there may be a way back in the future.
“It is what it is. It’s a degenerative condition, it is in a bit of a state, but all the input on pain has been really interesting – as have the balance sessions. It’s learning that I really can make a difference by doing these exercises,” says Lisa.
“I’m not ready to throw in the towel so I’m going to give it my best shot – with a caveat that my knee comes first. I need it to work for the rest of my life.”
We caught up with Lisa again a few months after her stay at Jubilee House, and she says she’s made huge progress in building up her fitness.
She’s currently going through the fitness tests she needs to, to get back on the run, and recently passed one she’d been worried about for months.
“I’m just blown away at how kind everyone’s been, they’ve got time to help you.”
“Arthritis is a one-way street, and I know that, but by strengthening other parts of my body I’ve unknowingly increased my fitness hugely,” she adds. “I’d got to the point I thought I’d need to resign, but now I’ve got hope I may actually do it.
“The guys on the station have been a huge support, they gave me a round of applause the other day when I passed the fitness test.
“Thanks to the Charity, I’ve got hope of getting back on the run again.
“I’m having to be so careful about exercise, though. It’s a balance as, if I flare the knees up again, it’s game over. So all training to achieve that 35 VO2 MAX has been low impact… cycling, rowing, treadmill… walking only. Physio exercises, sit ups and swimming. I’m building in more weight training now.”
Lisa has been involved in a lot of fundraising for the Charity in the past, having seen friends of hers helped, but she says she’ll now spread the word even further having experienced the support first-hand.
“I’m just blown away at how kind everyone’s been, they’ve got time to help you,” she says.
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