Bríd Stack: ‘The volcano erupted. I was crying almost inconsolably’

In tears, I told the neurosurgeon: ‘I can’t think about next year. All that matters for me is this year.’
Bríd Stack: ‘The volcano erupted. I was crying almost inconsolably’

Home comforts: Bríd Stack and Cora Staunton take delivery of some native goodies and gear from their respective counties, Cork and Mayo.

Monday was hard. Tough. One of the roughest days of my career. My mind was filled with doubt. Before I went to bed that night, I was asking myself that difficult question which I had tried so hard to suppress, to bury deep in the recesses of my mind, but which I could now no longer conceal, and which I unavoidably had to confront: ‘Is my Australian dream over?’

Earlier that day, I had met with Dr Peter Parkes, the Giants AFLW team doctor. We had chatted over the phone, but it was my first time meeting him in person. As the conversation unfolded, it was like he was raising a sledgehammer over his head in slow motion, building up to the moment of impact. Eventually he dropped the hammer in fast-forward motion and smashed everything to smithereens — in his opinion, my season was over. No more about it.

He was trying to console me by outlining how I’d make a full recovery for the 2022 campaign. But I didn’t want to hear it. I got even more upset because 2022 is completely irrelevant to me. I can only live in the now. I don’t know if I will be in a position to pursue this dream next year. My short-term goals are galaxies away from that threshold.

I’m brutal when it comes to hiding my emotions. I can’t sugar-coat disappointment. As soon as I left Dr Parkes office, I had to join the team in the gym for a recovery session. I kept my head down, made a bee-line straight for the watt bike and attacked it as if it was a punchbag. I was so demented with frustration and stress that I was slapping down on the pedals like a harvesting machine threshing corn.

We had to go from the gym straight into the review of Sunday’s game, where the girls and management were trying to put sense on a 47-point trimming from the Adelaide Crows. The discussion was like throwing more petrol on my flames of frustration. I felt so helpless.

By the end of the meeting, my blood was boiling like lava. An explosion was inevitable. Cora Staunton was sitting beside me and she told me to hang back when she saw the tears welling up in my eyes. The volcano erupted. I was crying almost inconsolably.

My over-riding frustration was that I couldn’t contribute to the team. Here I was, looking around this state-of-the-art facility, but I couldn’t make full use of it to help my team-mates, to advance my game or to maximise my potential.

After so looking forward to being back at base in Sydney to facilitate my recovery, everything now just seemed so pointless. I broke down a second time when we got home to our Airbnb. Cárthach, Cárthach Óg and I had made such a huge commitment to come to Australia, making so many sacrifices to try and see this journey through. But the glorious potential of that odyssey never felt so empty and vacant.

A moment of respite: After an emotional rollercoaster of a week, Brid Stack relaxes in Sydney with Carthach Óg.

A moment of respite: After an emotional rollercoaster of a week, Brid Stack relaxes in Sydney with Carthach Óg.

Sleep was fitful on Monday night. My form on Tuesday was still pretty low but Wednesday offered some sliver of light through an appointment with Dr Richard Parkinson, one of the most highly regarded neurosurgeons in Australia. After being referred by the head doctor with the Giants AFL team, I knew going into that meeting that his diagnosis would determine more than just my next move.

Accompanied by Kay Joyce, the Giants’ head rehab physio, and Cárthach, I met with Dr Parkinson in the Prince of Wales Private Hospital in Randwick. Because we hadn’t fully thought it through, we had to bring Cárthach Óg too. Before we discussed anything, Dr Parkinson got a sheet of paper and some markers and got Cárthach Óg colouring.

His empathy was apparent as soon as we discussed my predicament. He had done his research on me and my background. I had brought my x-ray, which he glanced at briefly before asking me to perform a series of arm strength tests. He went through them like a dentist would examine your teeth, calling out to their secretary and their checklist during the examination: ‘C2 fine, C3 good, C4 good, C5 perfect….’

I was concentrating hard and like a good student, performing every task with as much strength as I could muster. I passed them all with flying colours but I knew which one was coming last — the test involving the C7 nerve and its association with triceps extension.

I came undone. Dr Parkinson pointed out the muscle wastage on my right triceps and when he tested it, he turned to Kay and identified that there was significant weakness at that compression point.

He told me to take a seat and said that, on examining the X-ray, the bone was nearly fully healed and I didn’t have to wear the neck-brace anymore. I was over the moon.

Then he said: ‘You’re going to make a full recovery and you’ll be ready to go for next season’.

‘What about this season?’ I asked anxiously.

‘Next season!’ he replied, the exclamation mark sounding as loud as a church bell.

I started crying. Dr Parkinson tried to console me by saying that I was extremely lucky not to be paraplegic after the injury.

Then Cárthach intervened: ‘Doctor, I thought we agreed here at the start of the meeting that we weren’t going to be looking backwards.’ He nodded. After I composed myself, I outlined what was in my heart as well as my head. ‘I can’t think about next year. All that matters for me is this year.’

Dr Parkinson began to explore the options around that possibility, making two key points; the neck is nearly fully healed, but we do know there is nerve damage. And an uncompressed nerve can take up to six months to heal.

Going back to play AFLW with a weak arm could leave me more susceptible to other injuries, especially from tackles or being thrown to the ground, particularly when triceps extension is so central to providing that kind of protection.

So Dr Parkinson then agreed to get me in for an MRI and a CAT scan next week, and I will meet with him the next day or so to fully assess the nerve damage. If he thinks I can get full, or close to full strength back in my arm, he couldn’t see why I couldn’t play this year as soon as I was physically able, and strong enough to protect myself.

To be totally honest, I have no recollection of what I’ve just explained. I had to get Cárthach to inform me afterwards of the exact detail. Because once I heard Dr Parkinson say at the outset of the meeting that my neck had fully healed and that I could take off the neck-brace, in my own head, everything else was almost irrelevant. I effectively tuned out of the meeting. I don’t even remember breaking down crying.

The one question I remember asking him was what could I do in the short-term to try and assist my progress until I got more detailed information around my arm. When he told me that I could go back running in the next week, I bounded out the door like Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.

Some people might call me crazy to risk my health but it’s hard to describe my desire to see this thing through, for it to end well, to prove myself out here, to repay the faith, love, caring and deep affection the Giants have shown to me and my family. Of course, I’m not going to be stupid but, if I can play, why shouldn’t I at least try? It’s not in my nature not to try, especially when 2021 could be my one and only opportunity to play AFLW.

I was on a high for the rest of the day especially heading into training on Wednesday evening. The girls were almost beside themselves when they noticed I had the neck-brace off. Before training commenced, the head coach Alan asked me to stand in front of everyone and tell them my good news. The reception from everyone within the room, players and management, was incredible. I could almost feel that surge of goodwill coursing through my body like a narcotic.

I felt like a completely different person from Monday. I also acted like one. I did a really tough session on the bike, and an even harder one on the cross-trainer. There was a massive increase in the amount of weights I was allowed to lift. I was in absolute bits on Thursday but I was never so delighted to feel my muscles ache.

I’m in a much happier place now. I appreciate how much my season hinges on next week’s appointment with Dr Parkinson but, even if it doesn’t fully go to plan, at least I know I’ll be in some position to get back on the field and train with the girls going forward. That is my primary goal because it’s killing me having to watch on at the moment, feeling so helpless and so detached from the action on the field.

I had never suffered a long-term injury before. I did damage my hamstring three times in 2017 but time and the length of the GAA season allowed me to come back on each occasion. Yet with the season so short here, that chase and relentless hunt against time has been as much a mental as physical ordeal.

That challenge was increased from the fallout of the Ebony Marinoff tribunal. What got to me most in the aftermath was that I was being made out to be a troublemaker. The last thing I’ve ever been is a troublemaker. I’ve always wanted to just do my job to the best of my ability, and for my full focus to be on my recovery.

I’ve never put my head above the parapet before, but I felt really strongly about getting my point across. Unfortunately, though, there was a backlash. I wasn’t getting directly attacked on social media but I was getting tagged on so much of the commentary around the outcome of the tribunal that some of the bullets inevitably breached the firewall I had tried to construct around myself.

One Australian guy sent me a message on Twitter saying: ‘You’re a hot topic here now. Turn on ABC News. You may or may not want to see what they’re saying about you. Here’s the link.’ I deleted it straight away. With so many people effectively trying to blame me for getting injured because I was a rookie, that collateral damage really hurt me. I took myself off Twitter immediately.

The counter-side is that I don’t have access to all the incredible support anymore but, tunnel vision is key now and I don’t need any more distractions. I just wanted to put distance between those who don’t know me, and who didn’t know the full extent of what really happened. I feel I’m on a new path now and I just want to keep making steady progress along it.

Up to this week, everything — every meeting with a doctor, physio, surgeon, neurosurgeon — was always a health-focused goal. I fully understood their concern but I still found it so frustrating because once I had addressed the fact that I didn’t have life-altering injuries, I wanted it to be a return-to-play goal.

Unless Dr Parkinson tells me I could cause more damage if I do play, I already have it in my head that I’m still prepared to do so with just 60-70% strength in my arm. But if he tells me there is a risk of permanent nerve damage, I obviously won’t be taking that chance.

For the time being though, I intend to push on through the pain barrier. I plan to ramp up my training over the weekend and into next week. You have to have goals and, while I’m working off small goals at the moment, they’re still targets I want to reach. In my head, Dr Parkinson has definitely pushed my main goal into clearer focus. I don’t have to verbalise that to everyone but I’m definitely verbalising it to myself.

I was talking to a good friend on Thursday who said something which resonated loudly with me. ‘It’s not how small the steps are once the steps are in the right direction.’ Small steps for sure. But hopefully, please God, I’m headed in that right direction.

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