Houser: Healing the Husky – Part I
“Glove Saves and GPA” is a blog written by former University of Connecticut Huskies goalie Christie Houser. She brings readers an inside look at a NCAA D-I goaltender’s experience, and provides her own foray into the world of the student-athlete. Look for Christie’s work every week right here on The Goalie Guild, and feel free to leave your comments below.
Injuries are an unavoidable risk that comes along with being an athlete. When pushing the limits of the body’s capacity, it’s easy to misstep, both literally and metaphorically.
I should know, because one misstep two weeks before I was set to arrive on campus changed not only the complexion of my entire freshman year, but of my overall attitude and approach to being a part of a team.
The story of my injury, and how I changed as a result, is too long for one blog post, so this is the first installment.
Two weeks before the start of my freshman year I went into workout overdrive. I had honed my skills both on and off the ice throughout the summer (or so I thought,) but this was crunch time.
Maybe I took a couple reps off in the weight room in the weeks prior. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough to improvise when the proper equipment wasn’t available. Maybe I had just spent a week down the shore drinking beer and laying around on the beach with my best friends.
Whatever the reasons, with less than a month to go before the start of my college career, I knew I needed to seize every opportunity I could to better myself.
One such opportunity was on a Tuesday night with my old youth hockey team. They did dryland training outside of the rink before on ice practice. I had done it all before; ladder drills, short sprints, explosive movements, nothing out of the ordinary for a hockey player. However, one drill did not go according to plan.
It was a one-on-one drill I had done a million times before. I was playing “defense” against my opponent carrying a kickball. She was trying to get to the net behind me, and I was trying to mirror her movements and keep her away from it. Being an incredibly competitive individual, this wasn’t a drill I often lost. The sweat that was the summation of hard work and humidity dripped from the brim of my baseball hat. My eyes were fixated on the red ball I was to keep from going behind me. Just like goaltending. My goal, was to deny hers.
My opponent ran forward, I back-peddled. She faked right, I didn’t bite. Then she cut to the left. My eyes followed her, my head turned, my torso turned, but my left leg did not.
I remember a loud pop, then my body hitting the asphalt. I remember thinking that my body should be in more pain from hitting the ground with such force, but something was distracting me. Then I felt it; an all encompassing, searing, pain emanating from my left knee.
I tried to straighten my leg, the pain worsened. I tried to bend it back in, the pain worsened. And despite the nearly blinding pain, my brain realized what happened before I hit the ground. I had read about it. I had seen it happen to other athletes. I had heard about the notorious “pop.” I knew then and there my season was over before it started.
After a few minutes the intense pain gave way to a more dull, radiating, twinge. With the help of my coach, I hobbled off to sit in the back of his jeep and ice my quickly swelling knee. Mosquitos poured into the back of the open truck.
“This F—ing sucks.”
I wasn’t talking about the mosquitoes.
I waited until the end of dryland, and then I drove myself home. I called ahead to warn my parents about what happened. They offered to come pick me up, but I wanted the time alone to try and absorb what had just transpired.
Two days later I returned to dryland. But this time it was on crutches. l told my coaches what I knew when my knee gave out; I had a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament, and as a goaltender, trying to play through that injury was not feasible. I would need surgery, and many months of rehab, just to get back onto the ice. My freshman year season was over before it started.
I had never had an injury of this magnitude before. I sprained various ligaments in both knees, strained my groin and hip flexors, and even had a bulging disc in my back.
But nothing had required surgery. Nothing had kept me off the ice more than two weeks. No pain had transcended the point of injury and swept through the rest of my body. I couldn’t fathom being off the ice for six months or more. This was an injury that hurt not only the ligaments in my knee, but the fibers of how I identified myself, who I thought I was. I was an athlete, a hockey player, not ‘the injured kid.’ No surgery was going to fix those wounds. I would have to learn to heal those myself.
I swallowed the proverbial lump in my throat and called my coaches up at UConn. They were incredibly supportive and understanding. They told me I was still a member of the team, and that they would schedule a meeting with my trainer, doctor, and then surgeon all within my first couple of days on campus before classes even started. It was not an ideal introduction to becoming a Husky by any means, and certainly wasn’t anything that I had expected. But it was reassuring to know the support I had waiting for me.
When I got to school I had my meetings. My team trainer, team doctor, and surgeon, were all incredible. They were supportive, but also ready to kick my butt into shape when I needed it. Shortly after meeting everyone, we scheduled my surgery for two weeks after I arrived on campus.
In those two weeks I did a lot of learning. First, I learned that being injured did not mean sitting around. On the contrary, during team practice at the rink I did strengthening exercises in the muscles around my knee before surgery, then went to the training room and did more work on those same muscles, iced the knee to keep the swelling down, then had stretches and other exercises to do back at my dorm at night.
My trainer told me that typically with ACL injuries, a large portion of the quadriceps muscle is lost. Thus, the more we could build up the muscle ahead of time, the less ground would be left to cover after the surgery was done.
I also learned that I had a lot of work to do in the weight room. I had done basic plyometrics before I got to UConn, but had not lifted in any sort of structured program. It seemed like everyone there was stronger than me. I didn’t like being beaten at everything in the weight room. I didn’t like being at the bottom of the list in nearly every category. This gave me something to focus on and work towards in the weeks leading up to, and following my surgery.
Finally, I learned that I had made the right choice coming to UConn. The team, coaching staff, trainers, academic/athletic counselors, everyone was incredibly supportive of me from the moment I limped onto campus.
Normally when someone tears their ACL, they have support from family, and from physical therapists a few days each week. At UConn we didn’t call it physical therapy. We didn’t have PT rooms, we had training rooms. I didn’t have therapy twice a week, I had training six days a week. And I didn’t have a physical therapist. I had a team of trainers and doctors who weren’t simply trying to get me back to where I was, but to make me better. While I was nervous to get surgery, I knew that I had the best support system that anyone could ever ask for.
The weekend of my surgery arrived, and so too did my parents. They took me out of my dorm, dropped some of my stuff off at the sophomores’ apartment where I would be staying after my parents left, and went to stay at a local bed and breakfast for the night before surgery. It was at this point that we realized that the bed and breakfast didn’t have an elevator, and we were staying on the second floor. This would make things interesting later on.
On the morning of my surgery I wasn’t allowed to eat anything, which for an athlete use to consuming an exorbitant amount of calories, proved just as challenging as any other part of the process.
We arrived at Saint Francis’ Hospital in Hartford and went into the prep room. My surgeon stopped in to check on me, and explained that I would be getting a nerve block. Essentially I got a giant syringe stuck in my hip that knocked out 80% of the nerves in my left leg.
I also was given pain-killing medicine. When the nurse who gave me the pain meds came back in to check on me, I was still thinking about my rumbling stomach.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Well, I’m hungry. And that clock? It looks like a birthday cake. Did you know my birthday is next month? You guys should bring me a cake. Yeah, I really want a cake…”
I guess they were some pretty strong drugs.
The last thing I remember was seeing my surgeon when we got into the OR. He asked me how I was doing, I said aside from the whole wanting cake thing I was kind of cold. I was given a blanket and a facemask that would knock me out. All I had to do was count backwards from 10…9….8…
Check back soon for part two of the story