Injured Reserve

Injured Reserve
Jeremy Shank
Injured Reserve

I’m writing this article with my right arm in a pretty serious sling, five days removed from arthroscopic shoulder surgery. After three columns in this magazine chronicling my journey back into the world of volleyball, you may be wondering how this came about. Let me back up a bit and fill you in.

Since I’m in denial about my age, and since three people said to me yesterday, “It stinks to get old,” I want to start by stating that this surgery had nothing to do with age. In fact, this story starts when I was about 30 and still at the top of my game.

When I was in my 20s and playing volleyball with guys that were a few years ahead of me, my friend Garry developed some serious shoulder problems. He was a setter, but had been playing doubles for years. The beautiful thing about doubles is that both players get to play every position. And for setters, it means that they finally get to hit regularly. And hit Garry did. And since we played in a lot of grass doubles tournaments, that often means playing with dew-soaked volleyballs in the early rounds of the day. Hitting a volleyball at full arm extension over and over for years on end is bad enough, and when you add some weight to that ball, well, shoulders aren’t happy about it.

I knew that it might eventually happen to me too. As a right-handed swing hitter, I often swung my shoulder at odd angles to cut the ball hard inside a block. By the time I was 29 or 30, my shoulder was starting to feel a little worn. But that’s the same time that I stopped playing to start raising a family. For the 13 or so years that I didn’t play, my shoulder would begin to hurt more when I would throw a football or baseball with friends, and specifically, when we would spread out and see how far and how hard we could throw. I can distinctly remember a few occasions when my shoulder was killing me after throwing at picnics and beach trips. Almost without realizing it, I began to throw with a slight side-armed style. I attributed all of this to years of volleyball and age.

When I started playing volleyball again last fall, the pain increased immediately. I went to a sports orthopedic doctor to get checked out, just to make sure I wasn’t going to cause permanent damage to my shoulder. I was very afraid that he was going to tell me I couldn’t play volleyball anymore, and at the exact time that I was just getting back into it.

It was at this point that I began to contemplate what it would be like to become a lefty this late in life. I began throwing a football with my left arm and playing basketball as a lefty when I coached my daughter’s 5th grade team. But I still couldn’t imagine being able to learn how to hit a volleyball with power and accuracy with my left arm.

But then I got good news! The x-rays showed nothing, which led the doctor to believe it was bursitis (inflammation of a bursa). My instructions were to take some Ibuprofen to reduce the swelling, and to start doing some prescribed resistance band exercises to strengthen that shoulder so that it would not become inflamed when I played. I was elated to be able to continue playing and added these special exercises to my weightlifting days at the gym.

After a few months of continued inflammation and pain, I decided to ask for an MRI to make sure that nothing worse was wrong. (By the way, getting a shoulder MRI is a big ordeal, involving long needles and requiring an injection of a contrast so the doctor can better see the soft tissue of the shoulder).

Once again, I was worried that the doctor would deliver the bad news that volleyball was over for me. And once again, I got good news, in a sense. The MRI showed a significant tear in my labrum (cartilage in the shoulder) and some sort of “leakage” in another area. The bad news was that these would never heal on their own. The good news was that he could fix them entirely with some basic outpatient surgery (involving screws, sutures, and a solid month in a sling, post-op).

As inconvenient as this was going to be, it was a small price to pay to get back the full and unlimited use of my primary shoulder. I was in a big hurry to get the surgery and to get the healing underway in the hopes of being able to play, throw, and swim by the start of the summer.

Back to the present: my surgery was a complete success. I survived, the doctor fixed my torn labrum and he also found a rotator cuff tear, and fixed that as well. Two fixes for the price of one surgery. Sweet! My right arm is barely usable at the moment, and I am indeed a lefty when it comes to washing my hair and brushing my teeth. But the fix is done and I’m excited about the future.

Originally published in June 2012

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