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Out of 7.44 billion people in the world it happened to me, an 11 year old boy from Wisconsin who just loved the game. I took the long, three hour trip to Palos, Illinois, for a volleyball tournament. January 16, 2012. I was playing outside hitter in our second game of the Boys Winter Championship against Chicago Fire when all of a sudden a really sharp pain hit my chest, a pain so bad, it felt like I was being stabbed 18 times. Thinking it was just a pulled muscle, my mom gave me ibuprofen and I continued to endure the excruciating pain and play through what I thought was just a very minor injury. As I continued to play, I could feel the pain getting sharper and more violent until finally in the last match of the day I had to pull myself out of the game because I was in too much agony. I couldn’t move an inch of my body without a fierce pain rushing through me, so I sat on the metal bleachers trying to stay as still as possible in order to keep the torment as minimal as possible.
As the day continued we went back to the hotel, I could still feel that searing pain in my chest, but being the eleven year old boy I was, I wasn’t going to continue to complain and so instead I just carried on with the rest of my daily plans. We all went down to the pool and one of my teammates had noticed that my body was beginning to stretch out. As we began to examine my tumescent body parts we had realized that when you would press on a swollen part of the body it would crack almost as though you just smashed a bowl of Rice Crispy’s.
As my arms and neck continued to become enlarged we began to create beats and music to the cracking sound of my swollen body parts . It wasn’t until around a quarter to midnight when the pain finally got to a point where it was unbearable, I told my mom that the pain had gotten worse and how I needed to go to the hospital because something was wrong. Realizing that something was actually wrong, my mom called the Emergency Room immediately and found my teammate Grayson another room to sleep in. She scrambled to find things we would need for an overnight bag, and rushed down to the parking garage to pull the car up to the front for me so I wouldn’t have to provoke the pain. She helped me get into our Silver Toyota Camry and we raced off. On the way my mom called the Emergency Room and a nurse named Marci picked up. Marci was no ordinary nurse though, she was like a real life Wonder Woman.
“Thank you for calling Aurora Medical Center, this is Marci. How can I help you tonight?”
“Hi Marci. I am calling about my son, Thomas. He is having severe chest pain and his body has been swelling up for the entire day.”
“Ok. First I need you to remember to stay calm. Then ask him if it is hard to breathe or is he having a shortness of breath.”
“... Yes he is having trouble breathing.”
“When he presses on the swollen parts of his body what happens?”
“Umm…. it sounds almost like bubble wrap being popped.”
“Alright, so I will need you to go straight to the ER and we will be ready to take him in right away.”
Marci continued to talk to my mom and explained to her what diagnosis she thought I had. Sure enough she was right on the money and had diagnosed my case just by talking to my mom over the phone! By the time we had pulled up to the Emergency Room doors I was looking like Violet Beauregarde from, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, when she inflated to a mega sized blueberry, except I was even more blown up than her. Managing to get me out of the Camry and into a wheelchair took longer than my mom wanted and hurt me more than it should have.
Once I was wheeled into the ER and having cruised through two sets of automatic glass sliding doors there were nurses waiting for me with a hospital bed. They immediately moved me from my wheelchair to the bed with wheels and the little railings on the side. Then they quickly rolled me to the back through another set of automatic doors and into a smaller, private room. Soon after we got to the back room the lights flickered on and next thing I knew I was being hooked up to machines I didn’t even know existed. I was connected by a multitude of circular sticky things and they were being attached all over my chest with wires on them, dangling to my left and right. As soon as I was hooked up to the machine and put in a gown, me and the machines were pushed to another room. This one just slightly larger than the last one. This room was dark, there were systems of tubes all along the ceiling and different machines in every corner. They started doing a bunch of weird tests and x-rays on me, as if I was some alien from space who crash landed on Earth.
I continued to follow the instructions, even though I was in a terrible amount of discomfort. It was about four hours and at least a trillion tests later, they finally wheeled me out of the dark room and into my own hospital room. It was within two minutes of me getting moved into my room when a doctor and three interns came in and started asking me more questions.
“Hi Thomas, I am Nurse Smith and these are a few students from Loyola University who are shadowing me for today. Is it ok if we come in?”
“Hi, yeah that’s fine” I said, even though all I was focused on at this point was getting some sleep.
“So how are you feeling? Do you feel like the swelling has went down?” she asked, knowing all the energy had drained from my body.
“I’m okay, I don’t think it has.” I mumbled.
“Do you feel like you are still swelling up?” she asked.
“Not rea… no not really” I stuttered as my eyes began to slowly close and the hope that I would be told what was going on faded, she waved me goodbye and told me a doctor would be in shortly.
Finally, after what seemed like the longest day ever the final doctor, doctor Brown, walked into my room shocked to see a 11 year old boy laying in the hospital room. He had told me when he heard about what happened he was expecting a college volleyball player, not a little middle schooler. He then went on to inform my mom and I that both of my lungs had ripped ¾ of the way down horizontally. He pulled up my x-rays and was very good with describing to me how it happened and where to go from there. He explained that the tears had healed by themselves and the reason my skin was getting blown up like a balloon was because when I was breathing the air was coming out of the tears and going into the rest of my body and getting in between the skin and bones. My diaphragm had also expanded from this and that will always be there, but isn’t very noticeable. In order to get the air out of me they basically had to deflate me.
After he explained everything to me he asked if I had any questions. My only questions were, can I still play sports and if so, when? Luckily I didn’t need surgery and I needed to wait about two months before starting to get active again. I am still able to play sports, but if it happens again or problems start to occur I will need to undergo surgery to put these clear tubes in me that hook up to my lungs in order to help me breath and I will be out of competitive sports for the rest of my life.
Once doctor Brown finished describing what had happened to me and where we go from there, he left me to get some sleep. When morning arrived I was woken up by some of the best smelling food in awhile, all though when you haven’t had food in over 15 hours anything that is halfway edible smells pretty good. Two slices of french toast, one scrambled egg, a small plate of fruit, a cup of apple juice, and a large cup of maple syrup was served to my bedside. If anyone has ever told you how good hospital food is, they are not wrong by any means.
My days were pretty boring and very routine. Wake up, eat breakfast, talk to Dr. Brown, have lunch, talk to more doctors, facetime my sisters, eat dinner, have more check ups, go back to sleep and do it all again in the morning. You don’t realize how great it is to do the little things, like walk around without being in pain or even going to the bathroom without someone outside of it checking to see if you are ok every five seconds, until it is all taken away from you. Minutes grew into hours, hours dragged into days, and the days just kept coming and going.
By day four I was almost fully deflated and it was finally time for me to get up and try to walk a little. My overly confident self sprung out of bed as fast as I could and I stood up and walked. Except it wasn’t much of a walk as it seemed, it was more of a one step, getting light headed, legs turning into flimsy noodles, and fall to the floor. I forgot to take in account how weak I was and the fact that I hadn’t gotten out of my bed in four days. After realizing I was ok and not in a lot of pain the nurse began laughing as she helped me get up. I was given a walker as she assisted me in getting back into bed.
Later that day when my team had finished up with the tournament they came by to see how I was doing before they left the next morning. As they walked in I saw that they had bought me a size small neon yellow shirt from the tournament and signed it for me. It was awesome and I was so happy to see them. We all hung out and played games and watched TV until visitation hours were over. Since I got injured in Illinois they were my first real visitors that weren’t people who texted and called, so that really helped cheer me up and give me some extra confidence.
The next morning I had the same breakfast as the last four days and when the nurse came in for her daily check up I asked her if I could try walking again. She agreed with my request, but continued to tell me it’s ok if I don’t have the strength yet and that it is completely normal for me to still be very weak. Brushing her words aside I sat up near the edge of the bed, closed my eyes and took two breaths until finally I looked down and took a very small step. To me though that one tiny step made me feel like Neil Armstrong when he first walked on the moon. It was one small step to a person, but in my world that one step was the first big stride to recovery.
As confident as I was I didn’t want to test my luck, so I slowly turned back towards the bed and got back in. The Nurse had told me what a good job I had done and that she wanted me to try and take a few more steps after dinner. The day continued and soon it was dinner time. After eating my grilled cheese sandwich, plate of fruit, and cup of apple juice it was time for me to try walking again. I again slid to the edge of the bed, took a couple breaths and just put one foot in front of the other. As my legs started moving I could feel my body starting to get weaker, but I continued my breathing and ended up being able to walk around. It felt amazing to be able to move around again.
After I grew tired of walking around I got back into my bed and I had some more tests done. When the results came back I was told that I got to go home the next day, but no school for about a week or so. The night grew on and when morning arrived I ate my last french toast meal and my mom packed us up. As she packed up our stuff there were nurses waiting outside the room to wheel me down to my car. As I got in my car all I could think about was going home and sleeping in my own room, my own bed, and wearing my own pajamas.
Since the injury I have learned many valuable life lessons. Taking care of my body and listening to it is one of the biggest things I took away from this, especially being an athlete. It wasn’t easy and I had to make some major changes in how I prepare for a game: meditating, doing 15-30 minutes of Physical Therapy and stretches, and more mindfulness stuff, but it has also made me realize just how lucky I am to be in the percent of people who can still play the sport that they love after a potential career ending injury.
It has been just over 7 years after the injury and I am proud to say that I was not only able to continue to live a healthier lifestyle, but I also overcame many obstacles and continue to play volleyball at the Division 1 level. Not only did I prove to myself that an injury doesn’t have to define who you are, but I hope to share my story so that I can motivate other kids who are in a situation like I was to continue to play and to never give up on your dream.