Cora Staunton arrived at our apartment in Concord at 7.30 on Thursday morning to babysit Cárthach Óg. He was still fast asleep as Cárthach and I got ready for our appointment with the neurosurgeon Dr Parkinson in his St Vincent’s clinic in Darlinghurst.
We met Kay Joyce, the Giants AFLW lead rehab physio, outside the main door before heading into Dr Parkinson’s office, which was more expansive and high-tech than where we’d met him the previous week in the Prince of Wales Private Hospital in Randwick.
When we sat down, there were three screens facing us on Dr Parkinson’s desk, one of which contained the magnified detail from the MRI and CT scans I’d had done the previous morning.
When the first image appeared on the screen, I asked him if it was my initial CT scan taken in Adelaide after fracturing my neck. I assumed it was because I could still see a break in my neck.
“No,” he replied, “that’s from your CT scan yesterday.” My heart sank. A distinct 1.5mm gap was still evident in the fracture. The bone hadn’t yet fully healed.
I was totally deflated. My whole focus all week had been geared towards receiving news on the nerve damage in my arm. I hadn’t even considered any issue with my neck.
Cárthach asked Dr Parkinson if that was a concern considering I’d taken off the neck-brace a week earlier, and had pushed myself really hard in training all week. He said it wasn’t.
Then Dr Parkinson put up the MRI from my arm on the screen. He was very happy to report that there was no compression of the nerve, which was the news I’d been praying for from the moment I’d met him a week ago.
When Dr Parkinson tested the strength in my arm, the weakness was still obvious, but he said that the scan had still shown that the power would return in time.
From a medical perspective, he was delighted with the outcome, especially when there was no need for surgery to release the nerve compression, or to have a neck fusion. Cárthach was delighted. I should have been over the moon but, being honest, it felt like a pyrrhic victory.
I had been uneasy since Monday, when Kay and the head physio, Gemma, had put me through a battery of barometer and baseline strength tests on my arm.
I had told Cárthach of what it had entailed but I don’t think he was fully aware of the input the physios would have in me returning to play within the timeframe I had set in my head. Both physios had stressed beforehand that I would have needed to be within 10% of my other arm strength to satisfy the targets set by them to govern my return to play.
On the 30 degrees flexion test, I was 9% out; I was 32% removed from their target on the 90 degrees flexion. The 120 degrees flexion though, sundered me because that’s most readily connected to triceps flexion – it was over 70% out.
I was flattened even more when the two girls sat me down and outlined what my return-to-play programme now looked like. They were only following professional protocols but I wasn’t expecting it; in my head, I was prepared to play at 70%, even 60% power capacity in my arm.
At home, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue. I played the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final just four weeks after injuring my hamstring but I did enough, firstly to be passed fit and, secondly, to survive the match. I was in no way fit enough but I found a way through my experience, especially in reading the play to ensure I didn’t have to sprint flat out, and risk doing more damage.
It’s a completely different mentality in a professional set-up, where everything has to be done rigorously by the book, before being signed off by the medical personnel who over-see your rehab and recuperation.
As the girls forensically went through my protocol programme, they outlined how there could be a two-week block of controlled play, followed by another two weeks of uncontrolled play. And that was all before I’d be required to reach over 90% on all of their other assessment targets of my arm strength before being given any green light to return.
And the whole process is now further complicated by the fracture in my neck not having fully healed.
The two girls were very accommodating and informative because their job is to protect me from doing more damage. I completely respect their professionalism and precise medical approach but the hardest aspect for me to accept is the race against the clock in trying to get back onto the field before time eventually runs out.
That was really weighing heavily on me before I went in to see Dr Parkinson on Thursday. To have any chance of hitting the targets I had still set in my own mind, I knew I needed everything to be 100% spot on in that meeting. And it wasn’t.
I came over here to do a job and I’m still determined to do it. I just want to make sure that, whatever I’m doing, that it’s sanctioned by the medical team. It’s probably my stubborn Irish mentality but I’m still prepared to do absolutely everything I need to do – and more - to make it back in time.
It would be easy for people to interpret my attitude as selfish and somewhat reckless. It would be easier again for anyone to ram a list of counter-points down my throat like an ocean of cod-liver oil.
‘You’re lucky you’re not paralysed and in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. You’re living it up in a sunny climate out in Australia, which is Covid-free.’ I fully appreciate that perspective but I am trying so hard for everyone to see it all from my perspective too. I felt, and still feel, I have so much to contribute to this team.
I trained as hard as I ever have for months to get myself ready for this experience. I effectively spent a full year trying to convince my parents that I would be fine, and able to protect myself when out here to take up a new sport. I’ve taken a career break from teaching. My husband and I have left a business at home and a huge workload to Carthach's two brothers, Fiachra and Fionn, while I chase my dream in Australia.
I’ve often thought that this isn’t fair but, as the week went on, I was also finding it easier to snap myself out of that mindset anytime it set in. I just couldn’t imagine being dealt an injury-blow like this if I was still playing with my best friends in Cork.
I’ve been reflecting on the long road back from injury that friends like Ger O’Flynn and Norita Kelly had to undertake while the rest of us were flying high and free when we were at the peak of our powers with Cork. I’ve been thinking about those two girls so much over the last few days, and the devastation they must have felt while watching on as the rest of us had the time of our lives.
Áine Tighe from Leitrim has also been on my mind this week. She came out here last year and tore her ACL in a pre-season test match. Áine stayed on in Australia to try and accelerate her rehab and recuperation, and boost her 2021 pre-season, before suffering another serious knee injury at the start of this year's campaign. I can’t imagine how heart-breaking that must be for her.
I know I’ve been extremely fortunate. Other people haven’t been so lucky with neck injuries. Their lives have been permanently altered, which is a stark contrast to just having your sporting dream thrown off course.
It’s been in my head that maybe I’ve had too good of a run of luck over the years, especially escaping serious injury, and that maybe this is just life balancing itself out. But what irks me the most is that this injury was so avoidable.
If I had torn my hamstring, or if my body had just physiologically let me down when taking up a new sport, I think I would find this a lot easier to accept. But I’m struggling to find that acceptance after preparing as well as I physically could have before landing in Australia.
I’ve found it hard to sleep this week. My head was just all over the place after going from the high of kicking away a neck brace, setting new goals and constantly looking to reach new targets, to having those goals stalled and redirected once again.
I had really ramped up my training. I had been lifting way more weights. I was really pushing my cardio work. I wanted to keep that positive trajectory rising the whole time until the girls advised me to alter the direction of that graph.
I found the fall-out agonising.
For the first time since I’ve arrived, doubts were continuously rattling around my head. Then I was second-guessing myself, almost administering self-torture. ‘God, if I could have done that flexion test again, I’d have pushed myself to the absolute limit.’ Then again, maybe that was part of the problem – maybe I already had pushed too hard beforehand. My arm was nearly hanging off me going to bed on Wednesday night. Since the testing on Monday, I had spent most evenings trying to fire up the muscles in my arm in preparation for Dr Parkinson’s strength tests on Thursday morning.
I was throwing tennis balls off the wall, doing standing push-ups against the wall from different distances. I’d also been using a muscle stimulant machine on my arm for most of Wednesday evening. I don’t know, maybe I just exhausted myself when I had also been training earlier in the day. I wouldn't be someone for taking a nap during the day but when I came home from the appointment on Thursday morning, I felt so wiped out that I had to go to bed for an hour.
I’ve just got to keep trying, to stay searching for that opportunity for it all to come right. I’ve also got to try and stay positive, not just for myself, but for everyone else around me.
It has taken the Giants girls a while to find some form. We beat the Gold Coast Suns last Saturday but we all know that performance levels have to keep rising if we are to get to where we all want to go. And nobody wants it more than me – because the longer our season lasts, the greater the opportunity there will be for me to play. And I want to be ready.
On Wednesday evening, I got to the Giants HQ two hours before training began. After doing my aqua-jogging session, I went to town on the cross-trainer, and then did a weights session before joining in with the girls after they had completed their warm-up.
I just wanted to be around the group. I wasn't allowed to take part but the line coaches used me to dial up the communication levels. I stayed with a group that was mostly made up of defenders so that I could listen to the instructions given, and then soak up and closely observe how those plans were executed. When the chance arose, I even did some short distance kicking with Cárthach. For the first time all week, I felt relaxed.
Thursday was another reality check but I have to keep searching for the positives. Injuries and setbacks are there to test you and build resilience. It's important to just keep on keeping on.
My young son is excellent at reminding me of that every single day. I’m not in Australia to just punch in the time. I’m not here to work on my tan or to enjoy the beautiful sandy beaches. I came here to do a job. And, in my head, there’s still a chance that I can.
It might be a slim one but I’ll take that for now.
In any case, the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. There is no way I want to feel like I did on Monday for the rest of the season. I came out here to play.
And that’s all I still want to do.