Andres Blanco sat in bed, mulling a difficult decision. Neither solution would be pleasant, but he had to make a choice:
To use the bathroom or not to use the bathroom.
This was, at the time, a high school senior and a star athlete at Spackenkill High School.
“But I was afraid to get up and I didn’t want to call for help every time,” the 18-year-old said. “I would hold my (urine) for as long as possible. Showering was a challenge, too, so for the first few weeks, I showered twice a week.”
This was last winter, in the months following Blanco’s operation to repair a complete tear of the meniscus in his left knee, an injury suffered while playing for the football team 13 months ago.
He described restless nights in which he often awoke in agony. But there also was a psychological effect, one that isn’t uncommon but often goes overlooked in the recuperation process.
For many young athletes in those situations, there are overwhelming feelings of despondence, said Dr. Lonnie Davis, an orthopedic surgeon based in Fairfax, Virginia. No longer is the athlete an active member of a team and the physical restraints can seep into their social lives.
“Day to day, they don’t see much progress in the recuperation,” said Davis, who performed Blanco’s operation. “In six months it’s clear, but initially, it can be tough for a kid to have hope in the face of injury.”
A sports injury often will be the first time a youngster is admitted to a hospital or undergoes surgery. Blanco’s older brother is an Emergency Medical Technician, and the two had discussed before the number of emergency calls he has responded to from schools. “But,” Blanco said, “I never thought it would happen to me.”
That’s a sentiment shared by many scholastic athletes. Until it happens to them.
A partial tear to outer ring of the meniscus can be repaired “in a relatively simple procedure,” and the athlete often can return to normal activities within six weeks, Davis said. But the running back suffered a complete rupture, which Davis described as “one of the worst I’ve seen.” Those tears, most often, require a minimum of six months recovery. As well, Davis said, there is a “70 percent re-rupture rate” after surgery.
Eileen Fiore, Blanco’s friend and schoolmate, tore the ACL in her right knee during a soccer game last fall. Fiore, 17, had a similar account of the rehab process — unable to drive shortly after earning her license, fearful of walking down stairs and having to inform once-interested college coaches of her setback.
For Blanco, sedentary and unable to work out, he gained weight and “watched all my hard work disappear.” As well, he said, four college football programs that initially showed interest in him withdrew offers. Often he was unable — and sometimes unwilling — to make time for friends. The frustration grew, and he seethed.
“I was mad at everyone and everything,” he said. “It didn’t make sense, but you feel like everything is falling apart.”
Blanco did eventually sign last spring with Malone University, an Ohio school with a Division II football program. He joined the team but, after knee inflammation during summer training camp, the coaches opted to have him sit out the season as a redshirt freshman. His admittedly “wild dream” is still to become a professional football player. But for now, he is focused on his studies in business administration.
Fiore, now a senior, returned to the soccer field and did well this fall, leading her team to a sectional championship before falling in the state playoffs. Her improvement was gradual, Spackenkill girls soccer coach Mike Corbett said, “but she’s close to 100 percent now.”
As is her mood. Fiore, for a while, was in the doldrums. She missed a number of travel soccer tournaments last spring, crucial in college recruitment. She also had been a standout on the basketball and softball teams but was reduced to a forlorn spectator.
“You’re not watching the game as much as you’re watching your daughter’s reaction,” said her mom, Trish Fiore. “You know it’s killing her to not be out there.”
Alexis Garcia can relate. The New Paltz High School senior tore the ACL in her right knee in August, a year after tearing the ACL in her left knee, and has missed the last two soccer seasons. For as irrational as she understands it be, Garcia still has a hard time shaking the feeling of guilt, believing that in some way, she failed her team. That at difficult junctures in games, “I should’ve been out there helping,” she said. And in joyous moments: “I wish I was a part of this.”
Still, Davis said he recommends young athletes remain with their teams and around friends while recuperating, “as a reminder they’re not alone.”
Blanco and Fiore trained at Center for Physical Therapy in Wappingers Falls three times per week last winter. Their workouts weren’t much alike, Fiore said, but “having a friend there with you that can relate to what you’re going through is a big help. It’s easy to get down on yourself, so we were lucky to have that support and pick each other up.”
It’s often during physical therapy, Davis said, when the athlete has regained some mobility, that there is a glimmer of optimism and “they can see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Stephen Haynes: email@example.com, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4