|Condition: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome||Athletic Level: NCAA DI Softball|
Softball has always been there for me. Rain and shine, through good times and bad, it’s always been there. So you can imagine how ecstatic I was to earn a walk-on spot as a catcher at Saint Joseph’s University, a Division I powerhouse on the diamond. But I wasn’t satisfied; I’m a competitor, how could I ever be? So I set my sights high and kept my eyes on the prize- a scholarship, and a spot in the starting lineup. I knew it was going to be beyond tough, adversity like I’d never seen. But I also knew that I had it in me to accomplish whatever I set my sights on.
I’m a competitor. And competitors compete.
As badly as I wanted to win a starting spot, there was something that I wanted, no, needed to earn even more, and that was the respect of my teammates and coaches. Though I don’t have the stature or size of the average Division I catcher, I have the heart of a lion, and then some. I knew that because of my size, I could not allow anyone to outwork me. Spending most of my freshman season on the bench behind two seniors, I took it upon myself to increase my softball IQ, a skill which I knew would pay dividends later on. I was disappointed in the lack of playing time, but I also knew that my skills were not quite where they needed to be, so I worked harder than I’d ever worked before. With a highly anticipated full-scholarship recruit coming in the following year, I could see that I had one shot to earn a spot in the lineup, or I would ride the bench until graduation.
What I did not see coming was an injury. An injury that would take two years to diagnose. An injury that would gradually dismantle my athletic career.
The hard work certainly paid off. The summer going into my sophomore season saw me land not only a starting spot and a scholarship, but I also collected All-Conference and All-Region Accolades. I was primed for a breakout year; the kind of year that puts a player on the map and cements a legacy. The only thing standing in my way was the lingering pain in my wrist. Never being someone who sat out for an injury, I was no stranger to playing through pain, and rarely ever complained about something hurting. But midway through the season I knew something was seriously wrong.
With symptoms beginning in my hand, the athletic trainers began treating what they thought to be a stress fracture, a seemingly appropriate guess given my position of catcher. But I had just won a starting spot, and even more importantly, our team was in the middle of a playoff run – there was no way I was sitting out. So, I gutted through the excruciating pain for the rest of the year. However, when both X-rays and MRI’s came back clear, we were shocked but even more so, confused. I knew I wasn’t faking any symptoms and I knew I wouldn’t even consider going to the trainer unless absolutely necessary.
Focusing solely on recovering and becoming the player I knew I could be, I took the summer completely off from playing games. Although the pain became more bearable, it wasn’t completely gone; the injury lingered and hovered over my efforts to improve and compete. Despite continuing to work diligently with the trainers, doctors, and strength staff, the pain worsened again when I began the fall season of my junior year.
And then my left arm gave out.
It’s still so clear in my mind. Just another day in the gym, a regular lift with the strength coaches, working to get me back to where I was. I was on the bench press; struggling with the pain, but trying my best to power through. And then, snap. My left arm completely gave out under the weight of the bar, and my coaches knew that the troubles ran deeper than we’d previously imagined, and their attention shifted to the nerves in my arm.
A litany of medical tests ensued. X-Rays, MRIs, EMGs; you name it, I probably did it. Doctors threw around medical buzzwords and phrases that seemed to dance around what was truly wrong. The worst part of it all was simply that nobody could issue a proper diagnosis. I was beyond frustrated- frustrated that I was hurt, frustrated that I didn’t know why, but most of all frustrated because my injury was inhibiting me from performing as well as I knew I could have on the field. Surely, it was not for a lack of effort; I could not have asked for more from the medical staff assisting me, working tirelessly to help me recover. But something just wasn’t right.
Once again, I decided to gut it out through the year. My junior season, however, differed from my sophomore season in that I now had to sit out games. Even though I totally understood both my physical inability to compete in all fifty-six regular season games and the coaches’ desire to save me for the more important ones, it was the biggest blow yet. I was still the starter, but I knew my spot could be taken on any given day, and I didn’t work this hard just to have to look over my shoulder because of injury that nobody could figure out.
With the majority of my symptoms located in my hand and elbow, doctors began to explore a possible carpal tunnel syndrome diagnosis. Finally, a diagnosis that multiple people could agree upon. So, I thought… this is it right? All I have to do is finish out junior year then get this thing taken care of at the end of the season.
But, as I’ve learned, it’s never that simple.
After the completion of my junior season, I went to a hand specialist back home for more tests. But once again, everything came back clean, and he informed me that although the problems were stemming from my nerves, he did not believe I had carpal tunnel syndrome. He wrote me a prescription for physical therapy and sent me on my way. I was confused as frustrated as ever, but now I was pissed off. I was done with the lack of answers and the lack of progress.
Little did I know, this would lead to the best decision I made during the course of my injury- the switching of my physical therapist.
This new physical therapist was a family friend who was wholly determined to get me healthy for my senior season. The first day I went in for treatment, her entire staff evaluated me, and gave me the care I’d been looking for. Just by seeing me that day, they were able to give me yet another diagnosis- Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is, in short, the compression of nerves and blood vessels between the collarbone and first rib. When they first described this, I thought they were crazy; my symptoms stemmed from my hand and elbow, and I was incredulous that such could be derived from my ribcage. But that summer, we aggressively pursued treatment, and though the pain wasn’t totally gone when I returned to school, it was much more bearable. The athletic trainers and doctors unanimously agreed with the diagnosis, and even though I had to endure more testing, I felt for the first time as though we were on the right path.
The tests confirmed our theory. Two days later, I was sitting in the office of a surgeon who specializes in thoracic outlet procedures. Within five minutes he was able to officially diagnose me with thoracic outlet syndrome. I got surgery a week later, and I was incredibly hopeful for my senior spring. After surgery I felt relief almost instantaneously. Determined to have another breakout campaign, I began leg workouts two days after being released from the hospital.
The recommended six to eight-week rehab program took me just three weeks to finish, and going into my senior year I felt stronger, healthier, and more determined than ever. But as we got deeper into the season, I began experiencing problems while throwing. As part of the surgery, doctors removed my first rib along with a portion of my neck muscle on my left side to alleviate the compression on my nerves, leaving my ribcage unbalanced. Throwing would cause the first rib on my right side to continuously pop out of place. Although it was painful, we were able to manage it with chiropractic adjustments and constant treatment.
But one day at practice about six weeks into the season, I took a swing and felt a pop, followed by a stabbing pain on the right side of my ribcage. The pain was agonizing and excruciating on a level that I’d never experienced before; I didn’t know exactly what happened, but I knew it was a serious injury. Walking into the training room, I had an unshakeable feeling that my career was over.
After going to the hospital, doctors informed me that I had damaged some costal cartilage and that one of my ribs had suddenly dislocated and relocated during my swing. Seeing as I had only a few weeks left in my career, and under careful supervision of coaches and trainers, I decided to play through the injury. I really have to give credit to my trainer here; she did everything she could to get me healthy and was with me every step of the way. But for the first time, I was physically unable to perform.
Finishing my career on the bench was something that took me a while to come to terms with. It wasn’t how I imagined it ending- it wasn’t how anyone imagines it ending. After putting in all that work and overcoming such adversity to earn a spot in the lineup, I just could not fathom that it went down the way it did. But for all that happened to me, I still feel indebted to softball for what I learned along the way. I learned resilience, gratitude, and how to appreciate the time I had on the field. The game has a way of repaying those who give it their all, and I have already seen that in other facets of my life.
Everyone’s career will end at some point. Sometimes it’s foreseeable and others it’s not, but when the end does come, the most important question is this; what did you get from your career? I can certainly say that I’m forever indebted to the game of softball for the determination, work ethic, and fight it gave me. And I know that softball will be there for me in my life, teaching me lessons I could never imagine learning anywhere else.
Just as it always has.
– Hannah Dionne, #13
A native of New Hampshire, Hannah Dionne enjoyed a four-year varsity career at Saint Joseph’s University, majoring in Criminal Justice. She is currently enrolled in law school at the University of North Carolina.