When a high school athlete has designed their identity around a sport and the potential of a future in collegiate athletics, suffering an ACL tear can feel like the body’s ultimate betrayal. An ACL tear is a traumatic and painful injury that can leave an athlete on the sidelines for up to a year, seriously delaying any progress they might have been making in their sport. But multiple ACL tears, one right after the other, can be devastating for a promising high school athlete not only physically, but emotionally as well.
Injury, rehab, repeat
Eliza was a gifted athlete in both field hockey and lacrosse, with dreams of one day playing lacrosse in college. Her first ACL tear happened in the spring of 2008, just before she was about to enter high school. Although it was painful and frustrating, Eliza was still on track to return to the field for her freshman season of lacrosse. After 10 months of rehabbing her newly reconstructed left knee, she was back for the first game of the lacrosse season.
In the middle of the first game, Eliza planted her right foot, turned and heard a “pop” that signaled the tear of the ACL in her right knee. Before it even started, her lacrosse season was over and Eliza was facing another year of rehab.
I’m retrospectively really grateful for these experiences and exposure. Honestly, working with Dr. Chirban was life-changing and life-saving.” ~ Eliza
She met with Dr. Mininder Kocher, pediatric orthopedic surgeon and associate director of the Sports Medicine Division at Boston Children’s Hospital, who performed the ACL reconstruction on Eliza’s right knee. Along with fixing the physical injury, Kocher suggested that Eliza meet with Dr. Sharon Chirban, a sports psychologist in the Sports Medicine Division.
Realizing a new path
With this second ACL tear, Eliza began to realize that playing college lacrosse would no longer be an option. “It was truly devastating to have the door shut on that dream,” she says. “I realized that things were really going to change for me, and when you’re 15 or 16, that feels so overwhelming — like the world is crashing in on you.”
For high school athletes seeking to play a college sport, there is a window of time where their participation is vital for recruiting opportunities. For Eliza, this window closed after her second injury. “Day one of meeting Eliza she told me, ‘I tore my ACL and I feel like my life is over,’” Chirban recalls. “Here was an adolescent girl who had recognized that the probability of ever playing at the level she had hoped to play in college was gone.”
An important decision
Eliza played lacrosse and field hockey as a junior, but the skill gap had now widened to the point where she no longer enjoyed her sports. Two years lost to ACL rehab meant that the once highly competitive athlete was now playing with underclassmen on the junior varsity team. Eliza no longer felt connected to her sports, and found herself faced with the most difficult decision of her life.
“Quitting sports was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Eliza. “Finally saying, ‘I’m done with it,’ was so tough both mentally and emotionally. But Dr. Chirban helped me with these big decisions that felt so overwhelming, and helped me break them down and understand what I was going through.”
It wasn’t easy. Along with reframing how Eliza thought of herself as an individual and an athlete, she had to come to terms with having something she loved be taken away from her — seemingly for no reason. “I struggled with feeling like this was my fault or there was something wrong with me, or that I wasn’t a good enough athlete and I’m not strong enough,” she says. “But I also thought this was so unfair and I had worked so hard to return to doing something I loved — I felt like it didn’t love me back.”
Refocusing her identity
“It was really about the process of continuing to talk it through,” says Chirban. “She was a strong student and good at building relationships, so those were already a part of her identity.” Eliza would use her new, non-athletic free time to become involved in other activities at school. She worked closely with her high school social worker to help kids who felt socially excluded, and assisted in organizing freshman orientation. She also joined a community service group and read with kids at the Medford Boys and Girls Club once a week.
“I think that experience was really cool, looking back on it now that I’m going to graduate school to get my master’s in social work, I think it really helped shape where I am today,” Eliza says.
But Eliza didn’t give up sports entirely — that would’ve have been next to impossible for someone who embodies the competitive spirit as much as she does. In college, Eliza played club lacrosse, and has now gotten involved in yoga and running, even participating in the Falmouth Road Race a couple summers ago. “It means a lot for me to be able to still do things like that with athletics and sports,” she says. “Being athletic was something I loved, and it’s something that’s still a part of me.”
Eliza is now able to look back on her experience and see it as a defining moment in her personal growth. “I would never wish what I went through upon anyone else,” she says. “But I’m retrospectively really grateful for these experiences and exposure. Honestly, working with Dr. Chirban was life-changing and life-saving. She helped me realize that it wasn’t the end of the world, and that there is another side to things. She gave me hope.”
Learn more about the Sports Medicine Division at Boston Children’s Hospital.