BFF | As if a thick stick snapped


After a 15-year tenure in the United States, I returned to the Netherlands in 2021 to build a new research group. On May 8 of that year, a loud, sharp sound – as if a thick stick snapped – was the start of a new chapter in my life. During a cold windsurfing session in Zeeland, I lost control over my right leg and saw my patella (kneecap) disconnected from the tibia, and shifted more than five centimeters upwards. I immediately realized that I had incurred a severe injury.

My friend Pieter and his wife Marlies, both medical doctors, helped getting me out of the water on that day in May and diagnosed a ruptured patellar tendon. Four days later, surgeon doctor Van Montfort reconstructed the knee in the Catherina Hospital. It involved putting the patella in the correct position with a strap, and reconnecting the tendon with sutures that are attached to the patella by titanium hooks in drill holes. A ruptured patellar tendon is a very rare injury that leaves particularly older patients partially disabled. To prevent this, I started a long and very intense 15-month rehabilitation trajectory under the supervision of physical therapists Ricardo and Davy, regularly up to three hours per day.

At the one-year anniversary, I wrote a Twitter thread to share my rehabilitation experiences. Reading stories and watching videos from fellow travelers really helped me to stay motivated. Importantly, I was grateful for the magnificent care and support I received from healthcare professionals and my family. But ultimately it was up to me and I’ve learned the hard way that the patient’s attitude is critical for recovery.

After a 15-month rehab trajectory, I was in great shape. Overall mobility, cardiovascular endurance and the strength in my upper legs were better than before my injury. I ritually ‘sealed’ the intense rehab trajectory by purchasing a new windsurf board that would allow me to windsurf in lower wind conditions during our family vacation.

My newly acquired freedom didn’t even last ten days. On August 2nd, a loud, sharp sound – as if a thick stick snapped – was the start of a long and frustrating rehab extension. This time my left patellar tendon tore from the knee cap. With the help of TU/e professors Carlijn Bouten and Keita Ito, I got connected to top knee surgeon doctor Janssen. He arranged that two days later surgeon doctor Jaspers reconstructed the left knee.

Read on below the photo.

The time that followed must’ve been the darkest period of my life. How on earth was it possible to incur such rare injury on both knees? I just wrapped up 15 months of intense rehab! For someone who works out daily and is an endorphin junky, this was a very bitter pill to swallow, physically and mentally.

It’s been half a year since the reconstructive surgery, the tendon is attached to the patella and three months ago the strap holding all the pieces together was surgically removed. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to run, jump, or perform deep squats anymore, which likely means I also have to retire from windsurfing. It feels like an assault on my identity, but I started taking swimming lessons recently. Hopefully, in a year from now I’ll be able to share my love for swimming with you, but for now it remains a struggle.

Unfortunately, life can be very rough and suffering is an integral part of it. At our university, we train students to become problem-solving engineers. By sharing my experiences, I hope that students and fellow academics persevere and continue to invest in themselves to overcome serious adversity that they may experience in their lives.

BFF | Bald, Frizzy or Flowing is a joint initiative of Willem Mulder (Bald), Monique Bruining (Frizzy) and Luc Brunsveld (Flowing), that they started at the beginning of 2023 on the site of Cursor.

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