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Tears of a Parent

Susie Brenner | Parent Submission

Jackie took to the game of squash like a fish in water. After playing many years of competitive tennis and dabbling in some travel lacrosse, she realized she was too small to compete at the higher levels in tennis, and her fair freckled face in the Florida sun gave way to repetitive sunburns, regardless of how much sunscreen she used. Squash seemed like the perfect sport for her- a racquet sport and inside!  In the spring of her sophomore year of high school, less than two years of playing squash, she made it to the semifinals of the Silver Nationals.  During that match where she was up two games to none, she bumped into her opponent at the T (center court), turned the wrong way and heard “the pop.” We flew her home the next morning and drove directly to the MRI center where the diagnosis was confirmed by me- her mom, and a radiologist. 

I was devastated for Jackie—she had worked so hard to accomplish so much, so quickly, with her fierce on and off court training and analyzing pro squash players on the internet. However, the clincher is that I was in the middle of treatment for breast cancer, just finishing my chemotherapy and about to start my radiation.  I knew what it was like to fight against illness and how to win!  No feeling sorry for either me or her—it was survival… I would get through my treatment, and Jackie would get through her treatment – we would do it together. I am a glass full kind of girl so we were going to make the best of it.  It turned out to be a great year. We spent a lot of time together doing yoga, meditation, and learning about nutrition.  We set out on a path towards wellness together! 

During that year, Jackie was probably in the best shape of her life, even though she could not do any sport with pivoting.  Our wellness practices made her strong mentally and physically.  All of her friends starting asking why she looked so good physically and why she acted so strong mentally despite life’s disappointments and health issues she was facing at home.  Seeing an opportunity to use her newfound knowledge, she started a nonprofit, Piece of Peace, to educate other teenagers and kids about the benefits of yoga, mindfulness, and nutrition. Jackie’s journey in developing, organizing and writing the material for this nonprofit was an invaluable experience that she never would have done if she had not torn her ACL—-So she used the year to do something good for herself and for others! After nine months of recovering, the doctors gave her the go ahead to start playing again.

But that would be great if it was the end of the story.  That year, she returned to her intense practice regimen both on and off court. She was not looking back. By the spring of her junior year, I was in remission and Jackie soared back to the top of her game and came in second at the Silver Nationals. She was now talking with several Division One coaches about getting recruited to play squash in college. She studied hard and did really well in school and on her standardized testing.  In mid-June, she attended a squash camp at one of the universities she was interested in attending.

Then, I got the phone call from an unknown caller, but in the area code of the camp.  Jackie had just arrived that afternoon and I thought there may be an issue in her checking in, maybe I forgot to fill out a form. In one breath, the person on the other end of the call said, “I am the athletic trainer, and Jackie tore her ACL again, same leg”.  She had been on court for less than an hour at the camp.

I cried for six hours!  I couldn’t be strong anymore; I was devastated for her and what she had endured personally, and for what she had to endure watching me and my bald head over the past two years.  It was too much for a young girl to handle…how would she cope?

Again, we flew her home and the MRI confirmed the ACL tear as well as a MCL partial tear.  Recruiting was over. No one was going to give her a spot with her second ACL tear in two years.  No more pity party, no feeling sorry for yourself.  It was not in my DNA and it tuned out, not in hers either.

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So, I showed her how to be a survivor as well.  Last time, she created her nonprofit., This time, she could do something even better. Redirecting her competitiveness into something new, she set a new goal!  We had 5 weeks until her second surgery where they would do another ACL repair and also tack down her weakened MCL. Jackie had already planned on working in a laboratory at Harvard doing immunology research over the summer. She could still work in the lab by sitting on a stool or leaning against her crutches. The fourth-floor walkup apartment in Boston would be an issue, but she was determined to work in the lab and live in Boston.  She did reverse triceps push-ups to get up the stairs for the first few weeks when she was not allowed to bear any weight on the injured leg, and then when allowed, climbed the stairs slowly with the assistance of the crutches.  

The week before starting work, she now had more time to study for the mandatory test that she needed to pass before starting to work at the lab (she was supposed to be at the squash camp and was going to study at night).  Not only did she get a perfect score on the test, the Professor in charge of the lab called me directly to tell me he never had a student at the college or graduate school level do as well on the test!  She flourished over the summer and loved working in the lab and learning about medicine.  That experience changed her forever, for the better.  She was now determined to pursue a career in medicine and has accepted matriculation into a combined BS/MD program.   If she did not tear her ACL again, she may not have been as directed to pursue a career in medicine, at least right now.  

Would she have enjoyed playing on a college squash team- absolutely!  Is she missing out on something really fun- absolutely- both of her brothers play on sports teams in college, and I think she is quite sad at not having that opportunity. The likelihood of coming back from a second ACL tear is possible, but it is also possible she could tear the other side or never get back to the same level of play.  So she made the decision to use her tenacity and dedication to pursue another life goal and become a physician- and her new school has a club squash team. Will she play squash again, yes? Will she compete on the club team or at a US squash association tournament? Probably, but not sure yet.  She was just allowed back on the court so we do not know how the leg will feel.  

Am I proud of her-ABSOLUTELY! Is she unstoppable—ABSOLUTELY! Do things go wrong in life-ABSOLUTELY!  Can Jackie handle anything that is thrown against her- ABSOLUTELY!

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