Hiker and author doesn’t let botched surgery steal her passion
By Bridgette M. Redman
Jo Giese isn’t about to let anything stop her from engaging in her favorite pastime —hiking to waterfalls — not even the loss of her Achilles tendon.
A local hiker, author, journalist and community activist, Giese has great advice for hikers on the Westside, though she warned that with the drought, few waterfalls can be found in Southern California right now. She has been hiking for 40 plus years and particularly loves hiking to waterfalls. She has logged more than 40 of them in 10 different countries.
Some of Giese’s most passionate hikes include a helicopter hike in New Zealand to Spectacular Falls, trekking behind a waterfall in Iceland at Seljalandsfoss, and visiting such falls as Snoqualmie Falls near Seattle, and Halfmoon Falls and Grotto Falls in Montana.
Giese is also working on a book called “Keep Hiking to Waterfalls: A Medical Mystery” that tells how a freak accident nearly ended her ambulatory life. She braids chapters about her walks to waterfalls with the medical story of her multiple surgeries.
Accident claimed Achilles tendon
It started in 2018 when Giese was in her home office on a rare rainy November day in Southern California. Her friend arrived a little bit earlier than expected and Giese raced downstairs to answer the door so her friend wouldn’t have to wait in the rain. She missed the bottom two steps and went flying horizontally.
When she tried to get up, she couldn’t.
Giese’s husband, Ed Warren, and her friend drove her to urgent care. The doctor did X-rays and informed her that she had a complete rupture and was going to need surgery. She immediately called an orthopedic doctor she knew, who told her to come in first thing at 8 a.m. the next day.
She arrived in a wheelchair and met with the orthopedic doctor, who had treated her before when she had a tear in her knee and he knew that she and her husband were hikers.
“There are two approaches,” Giese recalled he told her. “One is do nothing, but that’s for people who are sedentary. That’s not for you. The other is to reattach it and that’s what you want. I used to do Achilles reattachment surgeries 20 to 30 years ago, I can do this.”
This, Giese said, was when she and her husband made a really bad error.
“We think we’re pretty smart,” Giese said. “My husband is one of those whip-smart appellate lawyers who has argued cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. I’ve written prize-winning books and written for NPR. But instead of questioning him, I thought, ‘Well, he says he can do it.’”
Giese said she was so relieved that she didn’t think to get a second or third opinion, or to find someone with more recent experience. The consultation was Friday morning and the doctor told her that he could do the surgery first thing on Monday.
She went in for the surgery to reattach her Achilles tendon and came out with a cast from her foot to her knee. Ten days later when she returned to his office to remove the bandage, what she saw was unexpected. The entire area had turned necrotic and died.
“I don’t think I even knew the word ‘necrotic’ before then,” Giese said. “It wasn’t part of my vocabulary, but it became a part really quickly.”
The doctor sent Giese to a wound doctor to try to get the necrosis out so they could deal with the Achilles tendon. She ended up having eight surgeries.
The third surgery was with a trauma wound plastic surgeon. He had tried to clean the wound manually, but it hurt her too much. He said they’d go in and clean the area surgically and then the first surgeon who did the surgery would reattach the Achilles tendon as the second part of the surgery.
The surgery was supposed to take four hours. An hour later, Giese woke up in the recovery room with the surgeon informing her that the Achilles tendon had curled up onto itself and died.
“The Achilles tendon is the strongest tendon in the body,” Giese said. “And mine had curled up onto itself like a little fetal worm, so my surgeon says. There was nothing to reattach. It’s dead.”
Many more surgeries would follow to treat the necrosis — including taking skin flaps from other parts of the body to replace the dead skin on her ankle. Giese spent 144 days on a knee scooter. Even when she was told things were helpless, she persevered.
Giese also went to see a New York doctor who pioneered some of the current treatments, hoping she could get a transplant.
“It was such a godawful mess that he didn’t want to go near it and that’s his job,” Giese said. “He told me to pursue aggressive physical therapy for two months.”
She began to search for alternative and traditional solutions, mixing them so that she could walk again. She visited a hyperbaric oxygen chamber (which did not help), an acupuncturist, a podiatrist for shock wave therapy, and physical therapy at a restorative exercise center designed for spinal cord injuries.
Giese has gotten a lot of ambulation back because she never listened to the people who told her she wouldn’t be able to hike again.
“When a physical therapist watched me limping, she said, ‘You have to accept that you’ll be compromised for the rest of your life,’” Giese said. “I refused to believe her. Grit and determination enabled me to defy my prognosis. I’m already doing what I wasn’t supposed to be able to do — walking and hiking with no Achilles tendon. If I’m walking, even slowly, I’m happy. In the future, if I’m able to walk even faster, I’ll be even happier.”
Giese said she works at not getting down when everyone passes her on the trail because she can’t go as fast as she used to — she can’t push off on her left foot. Her advice to others who are experiencing a traumatic injury is to research the best specialists in their area and then get a second, maybe even a third opinion.
West LA offers several hiking trails
While Giese has gone on many exotic hikes, particularly to waterfalls, in such places as New Zealand, Iceland and Chile, she said there are many local hikes that can be just as rewarding.
She recommends three hikes near Santa Monica for those who want to get the benefits of hiking and enjoy a beautiful view:
• Temescal Canyon Trail. Accessible year-round except when wildfires threaten it, it is a 3.1-mile loop trail located near Pacific Palisades. It usually features a waterfall, though the drought has dried it out. It is rated as moderate. It features both ocean and canyon views. The trailhead is off of Sunset Boulevard in Temescal Gateway Park. There are views of Malibu, the Santa Monica Mountains and downtown Los Angeles. Giese said it is a very pleasant and safe trail, though she advises people to go early in the morning to avoid the heat and predators.
•Will Rogers Trail. This is a 4.1-mile out and back trail near Pacific Palisades that includes wildlife and is rated as moderate. Hikers at AllTrails warn that the path along the canyon is not maintained and makes for a challenging hike with rattlesnakes and poison oak. Some love the challenge, others recommend avoiding it.
•Los Leones Trail. Giese highly recommends this one as the far end opens into a clearing that looks down onto Pacific Palisades and all of Santa Monica. Rated as a difficult hike, it is 1.3 miles long and has an elevation gain of 543 feet. There are spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and it weaves through lush vegetation in the canyon and then up into chaparral.
Hike safely for the best benefits
During the pandemic, hiking gained in popularity as it was one of the rare things that people could still do. It’s a pastime Giese encourages for people’s physical and mental health.
“In Southern California when we were all on lockdown, you could for some of that time still go hiking,” Giese said. “It’s a totally intergenerational thing. You’ll see people out on that trail who are my parents’ age or little tiny grandchildren and everyone can enjoy this.”
Jo’s Hiking Tips:
• Do not hike alone. “It’s dangerous for many reasons,” Giese said. “You could have an accident if you are there by yourself, especially if you are just starting out and don’t know the trails.”
• Join a hiking group. Not only is it fun, but it’s helpful. Giese said when she lived closer to Santa Monica, she joined a local hiking group that was a lot of fun.
• Select suitable trails for your experience and ability level.
• Wear hiking boots. They provide extra support on uneven trails. Regular sneakers without traction are an accident waiting to happen.
• Use hiking poles. “Everyone should use hiking poles,” Giese said. “They really help a lot, especially when you are going downhill. They take pressure off your knees.” The hiking poles should be long enough so that the hiker’s bent arm is at a 90-degree angle.
• Pay attention to weather conditions. “You don’t want to be out when there is lightning,” Giese said.
• Bring enough water for whatever you are doing. Have at least one thermos of ice water, sunglasses, sunscreen and bug spray.
• Be aware of predators and take the appropriate equipment. In some areas, you need bear spray. In others, you need to wear a mask or scarf to protect against bugs.
• Obey all warning signs. Hikers have died because they don’t.
• Dress in layers so you can shed. Long pants and a long-sleeved shirt will protect you from being scratched by low-hanging branches and twigs or infected by poison oak or poison ivy.
• Let people know when and where you are hiking and check back with them when you return.