The Secret Life of Student-Athletes, Part 2

(If you missed Part I, click here)

When committing to play college athletics, students are fueled by the promise of intense competition, sponsored gear, extensive travel, and (if the student is a nerdy jock like me) free education.  But while they may not realize it, student-athletes are signing up for a package deal that includes one other key yet poorly-advertised element: injury.

The injuries come in all shapes and sizes, striking when they are least expected.  Some are chronic, some heal after a few weeks, and some prove to be season- or even career-ending.  But the main thing I’ve learned after both experiencing and witnessing countless injuries every year is that each one has a story that is far more involved than what can be expressed on, say, an NFL injury ticker: “Roddy White (ankle, hamstring), probable…Richie Incognito (neck), ‘fine’…”   And while our athletic trainers were not allowed to share information on injuries or how they occurred, the stories behind them were often so strange that they spread among the athletes like wildfire.

During my sophomore year, the athletic department was struck by an epidemic of one mysterious (but noncontagious) malady: the concussion.  A silently sinister form of head trauma brought into the limelight by a series of high-profile NFL cases, concussions became a huge focus of the NCAA’s injury prevention programs, and student-athletes were bombarded with new videos, brochures, and paperwork intended to inform us about concussion symptoms and the dangers of ignoring them.  With the increased awareness there also came an increase in reports of concussions, as cases were diagnosed that could have previously been overlooked.

The swimmers were especially hard hit, which seems to make no sense since water can’t exactly cause blunt force trauma.  However the swimmers met their doom on dry land, a place where they are admittedly uncomfortable.  Two were concussed while doing a workout outside on the turf field after a rain storm.  While working on arm strength by tossing large, heavy medicine balls back and forth between partners, the medicine balls became wet and slipped through their hands when the athletes tried to catch them, resulting in two medicine-ball-to-face encounters.  A third swimmer became concussed after tripping and falling on the pool deck.

Another individual, this time a lacrosse player, became concussed just by sitting down in his locker: the motion somehow upset the balance of his helmet, which was perched precariously on top of his locker, and it proceeded to fall down and strike him squarely in the head.  Then there was the soccer goalie who was kicked in the face – with great force – by one of his own teammates.  And my team wasn’t immune either.  One girl had her head stepped on during a chaotic play, and another took a ball to the face – our male manager hit it at her so hard that she was knocked backwards off her feet.

As for me, I could probably write a book detailing my own frequent (and often freak) injuries, such as blowing out my knee in the first game of my career, and being whacked in the head by one of the metal poles that holds up the net after a chain snapped when I was cranking the net into place.  One of the most “freaky” would have to be an open finger dislocation that occurred during a match my junior year.  “Open dislocation” was the doctor’s term, not mine. In reality, my finger exploded, and everyone who witnessed the event agrees that my word choice is totally accurate.  (For the full story, click here.) Clearly, each of these injuries is far too bizarre to be summarized ticker-style, and this is why I now wonder what really happened to “Roddy White (ankle, hamstring)…”

Check back next week for Part 3!



The Exploding Finger Incident

The time has come for this tale to be told.  To the faint of heart, proceed with caution…

It was late October of last year, and my volleyball team was at the University of Texas at Arlington for a regular season match against the Mavericks.  We had spent the previous day practicing and also running through the halls of the College Park Center arena trying to catch Flo Rida when he arrived to prepare for his less-than-capacity concert that night. But that is another story…

On game day, the match got off to a rough start, with us dropping a close first set. But about halfway through the second, we were neck-in-neck and gradually playing stronger.  I was playing at the right front position and enjoying our building momentum.  During one of the rallies, the ball was set to the Mavs’ outside hitter, so I jumped and pressed my hands over the net to block her hit.  Through some strange combination of luck and skill, she managed to hit the ball so that it only made contact with the small finger of my right hand before flying out of bounds.

As soon as I landed I clutched my whole hand tightly, overwhelmed by the shearing pain.  I was pretty sure I had badly jammed my finger – a common occurrence for front row players – and just hoped the pain would die down quickly so I could keep playing.  I made eye contact with my concerned teammates and giggled nervously so they wouldn’t be worried, then we all laughed it off and returned to our spots to receive the next serve.  I let go of my pulsing hand and shook it out, then glanced down just to check out how swollen my finger was.  It was then that I noticed the blood trailing down my wrist and arm and followed it back to my pinky finger, where I found that it was not only swollen but also out of alignment and split open to the bone at the middle joint.

Initial internal reaction: Ew ew ew AAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!

Initial external reaction: I actually hardly remember this because I think I went into shock, but I rely on the trustworthy statements of my teammates.  I looked straight at my head coach and began to walk off the court as everyone stared at me in confusion; then I broke the silence with a rather inappropriate word…(sorry everyone).  As this is rare coming from me, it served as a signal to my coach that perhaps something was wrong.  He calmly turned to the referee: “Um, can we get a time-out?”

My teammates tell me that I quickly walked over to the bench just repeating, “Help. I need help. Help me,” over and over as my trainer tried to make me let go of my bleeding hand.  After I sat down, a concerned teammate tried to pour some water into my mouth from a paper cup, but at this point I was crying and gasping and ended up pretty much spewing the water back on her…(again, I’m sorry).  I also kept hysterically apologizing for crying, but our setter patted me on the back and told me it was perfectly okay, as she craned her neck to catch a glimpse of my mutilated digit.

I don’t remember what happened the rest of the set, but we did win, and my teammates sympathetically wished me well before running off to the locker room for the break.  One of my assistant coaches left me with these comforting words: “Don’t worry Cass, you’re gonna be fine – the same exact thing happened to me when I tried to block Logan Tom.”  Logan Tom is the starting outside hitter for the US Women’s National Team.  I remember thinking that if Logan Tom had exploded my finger, I probably wouldn’t be that upset…

A UTA student trainer took me to the emergency room, where I was placed in a room with a TV that was stuck on a channel playing one of the Law and Order shows.  The trainer sat with me and gave me updates on the ongoing match as nurses came in to clean my finger, numb it up, put the dislocated joint back in place, stitch the torn skin back together, and stabilize it with an unnecessarily large splint.  I stared at the TV, the wall, my kneepads and spandex (which I was still wearing, along with my uniform), anything to keep me from seeing my finger, and I grinned when the trainer gave me the final outcome of the match: DU takes the win.

My two assistant coaches met me at the ER with a change of clothes and rushed me to the airport in time to catch our flight back to Denver.  As I walked through security to our gate, my teammates cheered for me like I was a soldier returning from war.  That’s when I realized that although my finger had been dislocated in a most unlucky incident (and not even by a famous person), knowing those girls still made me one of the luckiest people alive 🙂

(Originally posted 3/13/13)

Once Upon an ACL, Part 3

It’s getting closer to Monday, the day when I will hopefully ditch my straight-leg brace and begin to wean off of my crutches. I have to say I am not going to miss my lovely, black, ergonomic crutches at all, although I get compliments on them wherever I go, due to their aforementioned ergonomic-ness and the quantity of sillybandz with which they are decorated. Why am I so excited to lose these accessories? Because they make life challenging in several different ways:

1) It is very difficult to participate in locker room dance parties. Have you ever tried to drop, drop it low while keeping your braced-leg straight out in front of you, balancing on the other leg, and clinging to crutch handles above your head for support? I haven’t quite mastered it, so I have to resort to controlled swaying.

2) I’m wearing out all my right-footed shoes. It’s just not worth it to put on the left one, since it’s never going to touch the ground anyway. 

3) Ordering food at walk-up counters, such as at Chipotle or Cold Stone, is interesting. After successfully paying for the food, I stare at it helplessly and hungrily as it sits on the counter, then look around for a friend or teammate to prevail upon to carry it back to the table for me.

4) I get easily exhausted while shopping. After perusing 2 or 3 aisles or trying on maybe 2 articles of clothing, I gasp, “Guys . . . I really need . . . to sit down . . .” 

5) My side of the dorm room remains a mess. It is simply too hard to crutch or hop on one foot around the room, bend down to pick books and clothes up from the floor, hang clothes in the closet, carry dirty dishes to the bathroom to wash them, put textbooks in a drawer or on a bookshelf, return right-footed shoes to the closet . . . you get the picture.

However, I can’t deny the several positives of being on crutches:

1) I automatically get shotgun whenever I ride in a car.

2) I have made friends with at least 7 cafeteria workers, who rush off to get me 2% percent milk and a chocolate-chip cookie with peanut butter as soon as they see me. 

3) Crutches provide a great elevator conversation starter.

4) Cars always stop, even without stop-signs, to let me cross the street.

5) My arms and shoulders are becoming ripped 🙂

So, I guess I can’t complain too much . . . Nonetheless, I will shed no tears this Monday. 

(Originally posted 10/22/10)

Once Upon an ACL, Part 2

So last time I basically ended with me driving home from the hospital stretched out in the back seat of the compact rented car, completely unable to keep my eyes open. I was able to call my head coach and trainer, and they too were impressed by my sanity and clear-speech, although my voice was a bit messed up because of the intubation tube-induced sore throat. Once we got back to the house and I collapsed on the sofa that would become my home base for the weekend, I immediately asked for – you guessed it – a large glass of milk. I was very fortunate that the pain meds didn’t make me sick to my stomach, so I was able to eat all of the wonderful home cooking that the mom of the house placed in front of me. Then began the regimen of icing for 30 minutes every hour with this fantastic device called the GameReady. It consists of a metal box which you fill with ice water, plug into the wall, set to the desired pressure and time limit, and then turn on. It pumps ice water through a cloth hose into a wrap that goes around my leg from upper thigh to mid shin. The combined ice and pressure helps to relieve pain and keep the swelling down.

The days were super exciting, filled with multiple icings, eating fabulous food, watching and analyzing movies (don’t even get me started on The Day After Tomorrow), attempting to stay awake while doing homework (fail), and perilous trips to the bathroom. But the nights were even better. I would crutch over to the bottom of the stairs and stand there, frowning at the first step for 5 minutes, with my mom and the mom of the house standing on either side of me, ready for anything. Then I would kind of push down hesitantly on the crutches a couple times, still frowning. Next came the lunge forward and upward, planting my right foot solidly on the step, after which I would lose balance, drop the crutches and cling to the banister, panting and sweating. Then I would just slide backwards up the whole flight of stairs on my butt. When in doubt, just rely on your arms to get you where you need to go.

I don’t really want to talk about the pain, let’s just say for a week it was excruciating every time I changed leg position and blood rushed from one point to another.

Now for crutching adventure stories!! Just over a week after surgery, my fellow freshies and I got sick of being stuck on campus and spontaneously decided to hit the downtown. I was not about to be left behind. I did it – I crutched all over 16th street, crossing streets surrounded by my entourage of guardians screaming “We’ll take the car for you, Cassie!!” I don’t think I really talked that much, cuz I was too focused on breathing. We settled on a super nice restaurant, and I like to take credit for the fact that pity for me is what scored us a private room. I was still on pain meds at that point though, and I’ve been told that I was acting pretty hyper . . . haha.

Not long after that, one of the freshman, Alex, and I got stuck on the second floor of the Ritchie building because they had locked the elevators from going to ground level (where all the varsity locker rooms are.) That meant there was only one way to get down: the hundred or so stairs leading from the top of the Lacrosse/Soccer Stadium to ground level. Have I mentioned that stairs are my worst nightmare? I handed Alex my backpack and began psyching myself up for the journey while she hyperventilated. I tell you, if there is anything more stressful than crutching down stairs, it is helplessly watching someone else crutch down stairs. I took it slow, with Alex walking down in front with her arms spread out to catch me. She said, “In moments like these, I have cat-like reflexes!” Fortunately, she didn’t need to use them, and when we reached the bottom we both whooped and hollered for the whole block to hear.

Fast forward to last night. I’m a speed crutcher now, a pro at maneuvering, hopping, carrying things while crutching, and even passing the slow walkers who don’t appreciate their mobility. But, last night I was Skyping with my best friend and her brother, and I had my brace off so my leg could get some air. Suddenly a shrieking alarm went off, and all three of us jumped. They simultaneously asked, “Is that a fire alarm?” It most definitely was, and after signing off, the reality of what was about to occur slowly began to sink in. I strapped on my brace, slid on a shoe without tying it, and crutched out the door only to run into a soccer girl who took one look at me and breathed, “Ohhh no.” I just said, “Are we REALLY doing this right now??!!” I live on the seventh floor. She held open the door to the stairwell for me and followed close behind whimpering “Oh gosh I wish I could just give you a piggy back ride!” as I began my descent. I was moving pretty fast, but the stairwell wasn’t wide enough for anyone to walk next to me. I could feel the mass of people behind me – if it had actually been a fire, I would have been totally responsible for the deaths of everyone on the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. Comforting thought. I did trip five times, and every time I heard girls behind me gasping and stifling shrieks. When I made it to the bottom, we all poured out of the narrow stairwell and joined the mob outside. I was no longer in a very good mood, especially when someone threw out that they might not turn the elevators on for a while and I would have to crutch back up all seven flights as well. My arms and good leg were already shaking. Fortunately the elevators remained in service. Once the alarms went off, everyone began line up in front of the elevators. One boy who lived on the tenth floor said loudly, “Everyone who lives lower than the eighth floor needs to take the stairs.” I looked at him and said, “Seventh?” He grinned and said, “I’ll let you slide.” While 15 people piled into the elevator I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around to see a classmate who I believe was slightly intoxicated (it was Thursday night after all, our party night.) “Hey Casey,” he smiled (it must be hard to remember people’s names when you’re drunk). “How’s it goin? How’re you doin?” I smiled back and said, “I just crutched down seven flights of stairs and I’m still alive. I’m doing great!”

While crutching stories are fun, I’m hoping I won’t have too many more of them. IF all goes well, I could be out of the leg brace and weaning off crutches this coming Monday – fingers crossed. If not, I’ll be ok. But there had better not be any more fire drills.

Hasta la vista,
(Originally posted 10/15/10)

Once Upon an ACL, Part 1

This is the story of what has happened (so far) after I tore my ACL, not of the actual tearing event (because I think I’ve relived that enough). My coaches told me the week before surgery that everyone with an injury has funny stories afterwards, and I think I already have my fair share to write about . . . Here goes nothing!

After getting injured on August 27th, the weeks before surgery were filled with daily rehab in order to regain full leg strength and range of motion. It’s kinda trippy doing single leg press, single leg hamstring flexion, and front and side lunges while remembering you’re missing a ligament . . . The only major mishap that occurred was when I forgot to be controlled in a side lunge and re-popped my knee out laterally. But don’t worry, I learned a lesson. Also, I had to walk everywhere without a limp, which took a couple days of practice. Once I got it down again, I walked everywhere I possibly could. I speed-walked back and forth to class, passing healthy people on the way. I took all 4 flights of stairs up to my Freshman Seminar class every Tuesday and Thursday, arriving at the top gasping for air. I timed myself to see how fast I could walk from my dorm to the locker room and back, because I had left my toothbrush there. (8min) I shagged hundreds of thousands of balls at practices. (You think I’m exaggerating? You try it.) And I enjoyed every minute of it! I am never going to take walking for granted again.

On the day before surgery, my mom flew into town and we drove up to the house of one of my fellow freshies who lives in the lovely mountain town of Evergreen. I spent the night chatting with my momma and the family of the house, and also constantly eating and drinking milk, because I had to abstain from food and non-clear liquids at midnight. I think I squeezed in another bowl of cereal at 11 . . . The next morning it was easy to get ready: no make-up allowed, no hair products, no jewelry, no breakfast. We hopped into the car at 8 to check in at 9, and right then got the phone call from the hospital that my surgery had been pushed forward 2 hours, so we didn’t need to check in until 11. My stomach growled . . . When we finally did make it to the hospital, my mom made sure I took the stairs up to the 2nd floor, one last time. I checked in and changed into this sick-awesome gown and stockings, and then got to explain to the nurses that no, I’ve never had an IV, no, I’ve never gone under, no, I’ve never been on pain meds, yes, I’m nervous. After finally getting the IV in, marking the correct leg with permanent marker (“The left one?” “YES, definitely the left one!”), and having me sign off on a dozen different procedural forms, they wheeled me down the hall back into the operating room. The last thing I remember was thinking “Ooh, this OR looks like it should be on House . . .”

I woke up with a sore throat from the intubation tube, two weird little plastic thingies up my nose, and a monstrously heavy black brace on my leg. I felt a little throbbing, and I remembered the anesthesiologist had told me that if I felt uncomfortable upon waking up, all I had to do was ask for more medicine. But I was afraid to talk, because I thought I might go into a nonsensical, drug-induced rant, so I repeated the exact words of the anesthesiologist: “Excuse me? I’m uncomfortable. Can I have more medicine please?” And it worked!! I was laying there with my eyes closed, mentally patting myself on the back for not sounding stupid. As soon as my mom got back there and they explained how the procedure had gone, I started asking all these technical questions like, “Were they able to use the graft from my hamstring, or did they have to supplement a cadaver graft?” And the whole time I was thinking, “Holy Cow! I’m saying exactly what I want to say!! I’m still in control!” But the whole time I could hardly keep my eyes open, so I had a hard time convincing the nurses that I was actually lucid. One of them began explaining strategies of when to take which pain medicines, and I was listening, but my eyes were only open a crack, and my head was nodding and rolling around on my neck. The nurse just looked at me and said, “You won’t remember any of this later.” With my eyes closed, I assured her, “Oh yes I will.” 

And so far I have! When I feel like writing again (hopefully soon), it will be about first crutching attempts, pain pills, starting rehab, and lots and lots of milk. 

Au revoir,
(Originally posted 10/18/10)