August 2011

Connecting the Dots

I’m bequeathing the blog reins to the Mrs. again for a while.  Don’t worry there’s some good parts…er, I mean some parts I wrote (found in italics)…sprinkled in there as well.

Lately we’ve gotten in the blogging mood while I’m at PT and typing while doing elbow flexion and extension exercises ad nauseam has proven messy. I’ll be back on board soon enough…until then, here’s the better half:

So why the heck are we so excited about all of this?  During that first week of ups and downs, yeses and nos, we had the opportunity to sit back and reflect on what all of this means for us and our future in baseball.

The first radiologist’s phone call was actually the toughest.   That night we had company over, so Chris took the phone call up in our bedroom.  He was taking longer than I expected so I excused myself to check on him and instead of finding him talking on the phone about rehab options, I found him lying on our bed face down in a pillow – silently crying.  He was crying hard enough that I could see his back shaking with the sobs.  While I doubt he’d really want me to tell everyone that he was bawling, the way I look at it is in that moment who wouldn’t cry if someone just gave you news that appeared as if your boyhood dreams were officially over?  I’ve seen Chris tear up here and there and even cry once or twice in our 4 years of marriage, but I’ve never seen him like this.  I climbed on his back and kissed the back of his neck while he sobbed.  As he choked back tears, he took his head out of the pillow and said, “It’s over.  It’s torn.  Baseball is over.”

For me the craziest thing was that instead of breaking down into a hot mess of tears, I instead was filled with a very calm and peaceful clarity.  For the first time in my life I actually had nothing to say, but I knew I had to do something.  So I said, “Get up.  We’re not crying over this.  Get in the car.  Let’s go watch the sunset.”

Ever feel like you’re in a dream-world and crazy-talk just starts spilling out of your mouth?  Don’t try to tell me this has never happened to you.  While we were watching the sunset from our daze of a dream-world, staring blankly into the distance, a thought popped in our heads, “This isn’t what you think.  Baseball isn’t over.  Rather, it’s just the beginning.”

Try to wrap your heads around that one – 28 years old, highest level AAA, independent ball, tommy john.  Just the beginning, my ass.

We tried to put the reality of the situation in perspective – it just seemed a little too far-fetched to actually believe this crazy thought, but then suddenly new questions quickly started coming up, one after the other, as quickly as we could say them out loud.  Little by little it all started to make sense.

What if my elbow actually started deteriorating years ago without even realizing it?  This idea forced me to think back over the past few years and with surprise started recognizing more and more pieces of the puzzle starting to connect themselves.

Was the cause of my drop in velocity over the years not related to the addition of new arm slots like we had thought, but rather a deteriorating UCL instead??

I’m going to add a disclaimer here on behalf of orthopedic surgeons across America.  The Tommy John procedure in itself doesn’t make you throw harder.  Some have this misconception and want to bring their 11-year-old in to get Tommy John so he throws harder.  In my isolated case, I believe that in the past, my body was protecting itself from further injury to the UCL and in turn wouldn’t allow me to “let go” and throw hard.  If I have had 106mph in me all along, my body was only allowing me 75% throttle so to speak, because it knew that kind of force on the kinetic chain would cause further injury.  I started off in college throwing mid 80s from my low arm slot and every year for the next six years steadily dropped one or two mph each season.  It could make sense my body needed to provide more and more shelter and continue to throttle down.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Disco, but by this past season I was throwing 74-76mph.

Is that why I struggled with controlling my slider over the past couple seasons, even though it was my original go-to pitch?

It’s not a secret breaking balls put a lot of stress on the elbow.  But over the past 3 or 4 years as my slider has up and left me, I never had a reason to question if health were the cause.  I have been wracking my brain for years now on this exact issue.  I’ve likened it to dogs and cats.  My slider used to be like a well-trained dog, it was always by my side and did what I told it to do with precision and obedience.  One day (probably in 2008) I woke up and my slider was an unruly cat.  Many days I couldn’t even find it, and when I did, it had a mind of its own going seemingly wherever it pleased with emotions ranging from apathy to boredom. It made no sense, and worst of all, it made me a one-pitch pitcher. As I said, when health wasn’t a concern, the mystery was –well, a mystery. If it turns out my body’s been protecting itself from injury and holding back through the cat-ification of my slider, it’s a mystery no more.

Disco just shout across the room, “hey you should say, ‘bullet point number seven: Is that why he sucked the last two years in AAA?’”  🙂

Is that why he always felt like he should be able to throw harder, but could never convince his body to actually break through that barrier?

What we find most cool about this one is that we both truly believe God gives us opportunities when we’re ready for them and not a second sooner.   In the exact moment we become ready for something, its like the ‘that was easy button’ BAM – here’s your new opportunity.  This is exactly how we feel about the torn UCL. Chris’s body must have subconsciously known it couldn’t handle a 105 mph fastball with a sub-par ligament, so it prevented him from throwing anything harder than 86 (overhand).

Maybe that blockage was fueled by a fear of not being ready or good enough for the big leagues; maybe the body knew it wasn’t ready, so it caused that fear.  The instant Chris recognized this hidden fear might be holding him back, with the help of his teammates, he dug deep to release that barrier.

It was in that very INSTANT when we feel he actually became mentally ready for the big leagues, in turn producing the fastest pitch of his life. This is the EXACT INSTANT that God smiled and BAM, hits the ‘that was easy button’, saying, “let’s blow this pop stand (er, elbow) and give you a new, stronger, and better elbow that can handle the speed you are truly capable of”.

Where can we sign up?

After all of those plausible thoughts came streaming through, one last crazy-talk idea came up:

Now what if we revolutionized recovery time for tommy john surgery by getting Chris’s elbow to miraculously be 100% in only six months after surgery instead of 10-12 months?  Imagine that?!  We could totally do it.  We have all the tools we need.  He could be ready for winter ball, throwing 120, big league spring training invite, breaks out of camp less than a year after TJ as opening day starter for the Cubbies.  (We’d even be okay if it weren’t the Cubs…. It would just be so convenient for us.  We live a mile from the stadium, we have family there, all of our friends, Tracy’s business… list goes on).

Obviously we acknowledge this last part is just pure crazy talk, but it’s what fueled us that first week through the seesaw of medical opinions and is most importantly what led us to this uber-ly influential question; the crux of our motivation:

How are we going to work together to get this elbow to heal miraculously and what do we need to do to make it happen?

1 week roller-coaster ride of emotions

For those of you incessantly checking the blog, all one of you, (hi Mom) – we apologize for way too long of a delay in getting blog post number dos up here.  Mrs. Disco writing, Disco is currently whipping a BodyBlade around in physical therapy in hopes he’ll actually learn how to fly.

As we mentioned in the last post, Chris’s injury came out of left field.  As bummed as we initially were, the week immediately following his injury was filled with such contrasting medical opinions that we had the opportunity to step back and do some serious self evaluation.  We were obviously hanging on the hope he wouldn’t need surgery, so the stark contrasts in each doctor’s opinions really threw us for a loop.  Going from one extreme to the other was emotionally draining and by the end of it, it got pretty ridiculous.

So, to bring you on our journey of the emotionally radical highs and lows, I’ll give you the timeline rundown of what we were told the week following his injury.

Basically, this is how it went down:

1.    Mid game, Chris leaves the mound for elbow pain.  (Emotions: Oh crap!  How bad is it??)

2.    Immediately upon entering the clubhouse he passes initial elbow stability tests, which lead us to believe it’s not blown out. (Emotions: Pretty bummed he had to come out of a game b/c of pain, but figure with a couple days rest he’ll be ready for his next start.  We are optimistically cautious.)

3.    Next day Chris is examined by an ortho surgeon.  Ortho says, “nope, you didn’t blow out your elbow; probably just a forearm strain.  Rehab it and you’ll be back in a couple weeks”.  Trainer pushes for MRI anyway.  (Emotions: Yes! Feeling relieved it’s not serious.  Can’t wait for MRI confirmation.)

4.    Later that evening, radiologist calls to say, “Sorry, rehab isn’t an option because you have a torn UCL.  Surgery is the only answer.  You’re out for the rest of the season.” (Emotions: Shocking, shocking blow.  Lots of tears.  How could it be torn??  Surgery?  More tears.  Really, really sad tears.  Sad. Sad. Sad.  Feeling pretty darn low right about now.)

5.    First thing the next morning, two new orthopaedic surgeons examine Chris’s elbow and decide they disagree with the initial MRI report.  They believe there is no tear, just a forearm strain.  They recommend 6 weeks of rehab.  Surgery not needed.  (Emotions: Relieved there isn’t a tear and feeling lucky that he doesn’t need surgery.  At this point we are feeling hopeful, like we got a second chance after enduring last night’s sadness.  Dodged a big bullet.  Today is a good day.)

6.    Later than night, right before bed to be exact, the chief radiologist calls to confirm doctor’s thoughts.  Says, “definitely NO tear in your elbow.  No tear at all.  Initial radiologist was wrong.  You definitely do not need surgery.  You just have an over-stretched UCL, making it appear “wavy”.  You only need rehab.”  (Emotions: Holy roller-coaster ride the past few days. Up, down, up, down, yes it’s torn, no it’s not, etc.   Still bummed about Chris having to sit out for 4-6 wks, but thankful it’s only a month compared to a year.  Hoping to get one final opinion from one of the top sports surgeons, we overnight Chris’s MRI to a few of the best elbow surgeons in the US.  We go to sleep feeling very happy and very blessed.)

7.    Late the following night, 10:30 pm to be exact, we get a text from Dr. Timothy Kremchek (doc for the Cincinnati Reds) asking if we have time to talk.  Dr. Kremchek says, “Absolutely no question about it, Chris’s UCL is definitely torn.  Text book MRI.  He further explains that a “wavy” tendon does not mean stretched; it means torn.  If Chris wants to continue playing baseball, rehab will not solve the problem – he will need surgery.”  (Emotions: Impressed at the personal attention from this amazing surgeon.  He made us feel like he genuinely cared about Chris’s well being.  BUT… now with those new results, we are back to being bummed, a little discouraged and confused.   NOW what are we supposed to do?? hrmph.)

8.    Next day, we get a call from a different ‘top surgeon’.  He’s very rushed and says, “yes it is a tear”, but gives generic information about rehab and says he’s “got 50 more MRIs to review today so if we have any questions to call his fellow”.  Fellow says Chris could try rehab for 6 weeks to see what happens.  (Emotions:  Not feeling very important to this particular surgeon.  More confused.  A little more discouraged.  Should we try rehab? Should we not? What the heck are we supposed to do?)

9.    That night we talk to Dr. Kremchek again.  He is confident it’s a complete tear.  Doc explains Chris could try rehab, but a torn ligament is a torn ligament is a torn ligament.  Kremchek understands all of the recent conflicting medical opinions causing our current state of uncertainty, so he suggests Chris try to throw.  He says, “the proof is in the pudding.  If Chris can’t let loose, if he can’t just ‘let it go’, he’ll have his answer”.  (Emotions:  Bummed, but feeling optimistic about gaining clarity.  Thankful for Kremchek.  That night we pray for clarity and nervously await the next day when Chris will throw for the first time since his injury.)

10.    The next afternoon, Chris goes out to the field to play catch with a teammate while I watch nearby from the bullpen.  It’s not good.  He feels pain through the first couple soft tosses and is afraid to even try and let loose.  He sucks it up and tries anyway.  No chance.  No matter what he tries, his body just won’t let him throw any harder than the 38 mph heat he’s currently throwing.  (Chris’s addition: “At this point he’s barely throwing hard enough to be a tee-ball pitcher” nyuk nyuk.)  Exactly as Kremchek said.  He finally convinces his body to throw a tiny bit harder and it doesn’t go well.  At all.  Significant pain in his elbow.  He can’t put anything behind it.  He catches one more ball and instead of throwing it back to his teammate, Chris walks towards me… head down, shoulders defeated.  He looks up at me with tears in his eyes and says, “well, at least we got our answer.”  (Emotions: Tearful relief.  Feeling grateful God granted us the clarity we prayed for the night before.  Sad to acknowledge Chris’s season is officially over.)

11.    We walk in from the field together with the amazing trainer, Jess, and call Kremchek.  We’ve got some serious questions for him.  He patiently and thoroughly answers each and every one of them.  We know some surgeons don’t actually do their surgeries, so we ask Dr. Kremchek if he would consider doing Chris’s surgery start to finish.  Kremchek says he does all of his surgeries and explains the entire process.  We ask him to explain his “docking” technique of how he attaches the new ligament and ask why his is a little different than Jobe, Andrews, and Yocum.  Before hanging up, we learn one final piece of information we feel valuable enough to choose Dr. Kremchek to perform Chris’s surgery.  Kremchek makes a strong effort not to disrupt the ulnar nerve during surgery unless absolutely necessary because some patients experience nerve pain, tingling, or other side effects.  We don’t want Chris’s ulnar nerve touched.  We schedule surgery 4 days away.

12.    The next day we pack up our car and make the 534 mile drive out to Cincy to meet with Dr. Kremchek.  He is amazing.  He does a saline MRI and as he noted earlier, this new MRI confirms a full and complete tear of Chris’s Ulnar Collateral Ligament.  Because there wasn’t obvious trauma to any of the surrounding structures, the doc and radiologist concur that the UCL had probably been tearing little by little over a long period of time.  This piece of information is unbelievably paramount to us for so many reasons.  It is the final nod, the official “yes”, the complete confirmation that we are officially on a new journey better than we could ever imagine and we are oh so excited for surgery.

Emotions:    bring.  it.  on.  tommy.   john.