Making the Comeback of a Lifetime: Flip the Switch to Live!

Published February 8, 2024

By: John Christoforetti, MD, Orthopedic Sports Surgeon


Life Restoration Guide

Life can be rough.  When big challenges happen, and they sure do happen, it can feel like all our hard work and dreams are ruined and all hope is lost- yet something inside all of us exists that can provide the strength to move forward.  Expert martial artist call this “indomitable spirit” and modern mental health experts call it “grit.”   This is not a secret gift only possessed by superstar athletes, world leaders or Navy SEALs (although those folks sure raise the bar for the rest of us).

I am not the first to believe that all humans unknowingly poses a deep and abundant reserve of resources of mind, body and spirit that can be tapped and used for their good.   Years ago, in his 1984 book Love, Medicine and Miracles, Dr Bernie Siegel described this phenomenon within his surgical cancer patients- it’s a fantastic book.  Dr Siegel proposed that inside the human being there is a “super system” that exists which organizes and directs all the other systems (think nervous system, respiratory system, immune system, etc) according to one simple setting: live or die.  He shared stories of patients achieving more life against all odds by holding the “live” button on, like an elevator hold button, and the other systems obeying the command.  It’s not just those who face loss of life who draw our attention to this capacity. 

When orthopedicshoulder, hip orknee injuries stop us in our tracks, they can threaten to take away the thing we most live FOR.  It is in this setting that I witness so many seemingly ordinary people tapping into this reservoir and making mind-blowing victories out of the mess of life’s challenges.  Whether it’s a mom with a knee injury skiing with her family who fears she will miss out on precious future memories or a college soccer athlete with a hip labrum tear who can no longer train due to hip pain: the threat is real.  That is when they take stock of their situation and make a choice to live.

We meet our patients from all over the world at different times in their experience of injury, we learn their goal and what threatens their way of life, and they ask us to show them options.  We take inventory of all those good things that they still possess outside their injured part.  We assemble a team of experts who believe in the power of a human being to make a comeback against difficult odds.  They put us to work for them.

If needed, I repair their injury with safety and precision through scope surgery is the small but meaningful technical part that I play in the story.  I can draw upon the patient-reported outcomes of the thousands of my patients that already beat the odds to safely press our skills to the limits on their behalf.  I do what they cannot do for themselves and get their bodies ready for the work they and their physical therapists will do to heal.

There is more, however, that I can do to help: I can listen and understand their challenge and its impact on the quality of their lives.  I can lead a team of experts with different talents and skills and coordinate the strategy.   The patient and we can commit together that the comeback will be real, it will feature surprises and setbacks, and it will be theirs to savor.  Time and again, once this bond is made, patients will choose to set their sights on a comeback- they will flip the switch to “live” again.  Sometimes the goal is the same as always, other times they select a new goal that excites them.  This is not easy, and it takes a minute for most of us to get it together- that’s OK and what a good guide knows.  Then we must pick life, plot a course, and get going!

While the signed jerseys, social media posts from the mountaintop and memories made are appreciated and steal the show, they are not the biggest victory in any of our patients’ stories.  It’s knowing they made the commitment to live again: they awoke to their true potential and tapped into the “super system” within them.   In that moment, they moved from victim of life’s unfairness to master of the comeback- and from that point, they can do anything!

If Dr Siegel and my team are not alone and you agree with this radical belief, share your story, and spread the legend of a “supersystem.”  It might just help unlock the power for someone facing their own decision point.


About the author:

John Christoforetti, MD is an orthopedic sports surgeon at Maryland Orthopaedic Specialists specializing in arthroscopic surgery of the hip, shoulder, and knee.  He is a black belt martial artist, boxing champion, and author of over 50 original peer-reviewed publications and studies the results of his surgery by patients’ own reports.  In 1998 a severe ankle injury ended his competitive martial arts career and taught him the principles of adaptive comeback.  He lectures on the role of mind, body, and spirit in recovery from surgery and serves as consultant to elite athletes and active individuals from around the world.