Gr8ful for the Battle

By Andrea Renner

Inside the journey of women’s hockey forward Andrea Renner as she battled back from injury.

One piece of advice I would give my younger self is this: Be grateful every time you step onto the ice and value every second spent with your teammates, because hockey can be taken away at any moment.

Hockey has been my whole life since I was seven. It’s made me into a relentless competitor, taught me valuable lessons and has allowed me to grow. It’s brought me numerous success stories, but also heartbreaking failures. The feeling of success is tremendous, and one I don’t take for granted, but I learn more about myself in times of adversity and struggle. When I get knocked down, I climb back up; that’s when I test myself the most in life.

Hockey, similar to any sport, is physically demanding, and has taken a toll on my body over the years. I’ve had severe injuries, multiple surgeries, concussions, broken bones and the list goes on. But all the physical pain I’ve experienced in hockey gets washed away when I think about having fun with my teammates or hoisting a championship trophy.

No adversity is more fresh in my mind than the recent injury that kept me on the sidelines for an entire season. It tested me physically, mentally and emotionally and I’m proud to talk about what struggles I went through because it wasn’t easy to return to the game that has taught me everything.

The season of 2019-2020 was my senior year, and I was determined to have a great season. After my junior year, I was eager to go home and start summer training. But in May 2019, I started to feel severe sciatic pain from my low back down my left leg and foot. It limited my training and kept me off the ice most of the summer. My low back was bothering me with every move, and whether I was walking or sitting I felt like a fragile 80-year-old.

Additionally, my glute, calf and foot all completely shut down on me, and I was not able to activate any of those muscles. My foot felt like it had pins and needles in it constantly. My calf always felt tremendously tight and had minimal strength. I couldn’t activate my glute in exercises and it felt weak constantly.

The only way to take away my pain was to fall asleep, even that was challenging. From the moment I woke up and placed my feet on the floor to start my day to the time I went to bed at night, my life was painful. It made me unpleasant to be around and was exhausting physically, but even more mentally.

I spent my entire summer trying to pinpoint what exactly was causing my pain. I was going to multiple doctors’ appointments and eventually discovered a fracture in my lumbar spine. This injury takes about five to six months to heal, and unfortunately I have had this injury in the past. But in the back of my mind I also felt that something else was wrong.

Injections, physical therapy and treatment didn’t help, and I felt hopeless as the summer began to come to an end. Doctors told me to “hang up my skates” and start thinking about something else.

Hearing a doctor tell you to quit something you dedicated your whole life to is crushing, and I didn’t want it to bother me but it did. When I returned to school in the fall, I made the tough decision to take a medical redshirt year. Still unsure where to look next, I eventually decided to look into getting my hip evaluated as it could’ve been causing my back pain. In late November, I was told that there was a severe amount of damage in my hip that could be causing my sciatica and could have led to my spine fracture. It was not guaranteed, but a great possibility. Surgery was encouraged so I could play again, which was all I wanted to do. With some uncertainty in correlating my back pain with my hip, I felt like I could’ve been taking a big risk. But I went with my gut and scheduled a 7am hip surgery, hoping I made the right choice. 

On December 24, 2019, I had a six-hour hip surgery. Before being put to sleep, I was told that the surgery would only be about two hours – but afterward, the surgeon explained to me that once he started the procedure, it was worse than what the MRI showed. The labrum was completely torn and I had a significant amount of additional bone being grown on the femoral head and pelvis. This bone-on-bone contact occurred every time I extended my leg outward. In relation to hockey, every time I took a stride on the ice, my hip and pelvis were smashing against each other, which would misalign my spine and eventually created a spinal fracture as well as my sciatica. All in all, the surgery included labrum anchors and complete reconstruction of the hip and pelvis.

Unfortunately, I struggled coming out of surgery so I was not released until 9pm. It was one of the most difficult surgeries to recover from. My heart rate was dropping on and off for hours, and I was put on oxygen from the time I woke up to the time I left the hospital – around seven hours – because I wasn’t able to breathe well enough on my own. I was constantly in and out of consciousness, and every time I fell asleep to rest, I was awoken because I would stop breathing. The entire day was exhausting.

I had no feeling in my left leg, but my hip and back gave me the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. Every couple hours my painkillers were increased, and eventually I was put back to sleep again because I needed the strongest medication possible. I was told that if I was awake while receiving this pain medicine I may hallucinate and it could make my state even worse.

I wouldn’t wish my experience that day upon anyone. At the beginning of this story, remember that piece of advice I wish I could tell my younger self? Well, as I was laying in the hospital bed, this was definitely a moment in time where I wish I knew to value that last time I stepped on the ice. My sport had just been taken away from me for a long time, and I had no clue when or if I could skate again. I was going to be on the sidelines for a while and had to adapt to a new way of life. While thinking this, I still knew that I was going to come out of this injury but I needed the right mentality and significant guidance. 

Although from the outside perspective it may seem that an injury only affects an athlete physically, injuries also take a mental and emotional toll. When a competitive athlete is stripped from their environment, it can spark negative thoughts and emotions. Early on in my injury, in the summer and fall months before my December hip surgery, I was constantly questioning myself and whether or not I was capable of getting through the injury. I wondered if I would ever play again, why this was happening to me, what was even wrong – it ran through my mind every day.

When I made my decision to take a redshirt season, I was so torn mentally over the choice I’d made. I felt like I’d let my team down by not playing. Additionally, it was my senior season, my last year to play with some of my closest friends, who were also seniors at that time. I felt guilty and selfish, and began to believe I wouldn’t ever figure out what was really wrong. Although the choice to redshirt made me feel this way, I still received nothing but love and support from my friends, family and teammates. That allowed me to forgive myself for taking the tough route, skipping the season of playing and focusing on getting better. 

After months of question mark mentality, my quality of life started to become poor early into the injury. Anybody who knows me knows that I’m an energetic, goofy and positive person looking at the life glass as half full instead of half empty. I will be the first person to hug when you are doing something amazing, and a shoulder to lean on when you are going through a tough time. I always aim to help others before I help myself. But going through mental and physical pain every day changed me immensely for the worse.

When I was with others I could fake a smile and try my best to stay within the lines of “me.” I felt this was something I had to do, especially at the rink, because I was also a team captain at the time of my injury. As a captain, I have obligations and responsibilities to uphold for the team. I knew that at the end of the day I had a job to do, and I was trying to do it to the best of my ability. Even though I wasn’t skating or lifting with the team, I still had to know what was going on. When I didn’t understand what was happening within our team because I wasn’t involved, it made me feel lost. Being in the training room alone while my team was at practice or lifting, hearing them have fun, was something that crushed me because I was missing out on the experience of the season.

I had to work twice as hard to be a leader because I wasn’t able to lead on the ice. I had to find a new way to lead, which involved more thinking about what my life was going to be like going forward. I still wanted to make an impact even though I was never going to touch the ice. Being a captain of the Northeastern hockey team is a role I always humbly accept and value that responsibility. But dealing with my injury, my own self pain, along with keeping up with the role of a captain took a toll on my overall well-being. I was hiding my pain from everyone because I didn’t want them to believe the injury was getting the best of me, but it was consuming me. Behind closed doors I was a wreck, and for somebody who doesn’t shed many tears, I cried almost every day because of my pain.

I became temperamental, angry and bitter about my life. Pain ate at me every second of the day and I felt hopeless. I was putting on a happy front when I was in public, while really living this life where my habits became very unhealthy. I never discussed my emotions with anybody, and I truly believe that was my biggest mistake. I bottled every single emotion up, and kept it to myself. 

Early on in this injury, I started to not even recognize who I was anymore. After months of unhealthy behavior, one night it all came out, I exploded and everything I felt and thought caught up to me and I felt completely broken. This moment was the turning point in my journey to coming back to who I really needed to be.  I was done suffering in silence. I was done letting this injury control me and what I do and how I think about my life. 

The next morning I reached out for help, and eventually discussed every detail with a tremendous mentor on the Northeastern staff, Katie Brooks. Katie pushed me to be better every time we talked. A key discussion we had every single time we met was telling each other what we were grateful for; it could be anything, big or small. This was her way of showing me the positives in my life. At first this was very difficult for me because I saw my life in a negative way all the time. But as the months went on, I became more open minded and trustful in the process. Without Katie Brooks, or ultimately somebody to talk to, I really don’t think I would be opening up and sharing my story at all. To Katie Brooks, I am beyond grateful and lucky that you are able to positively affect my life. 

All it takes is a simple conversation with somebody who cares, and from then on I learned that there’s peace in healing the wounds in your mind and body on this journey if you can acknowledge every thought and feeling. Ignoring the tolls taken only adds up more stress physically, mentally and emotionally. It is an unhealthy way of treating yourself and I had to learn that the hard way.

Throughout my injury, I found myself trying to find books or articles that I could relate to when it came to learning how to handle all the mental, physical and emotional pain that my injury brought me. Sadly, I found nothing, which yet again made me feel alone. It is a sensitive topic to open up and discuss, which is understandable. It’s been a long journey to be able to come full circle and accept my struggles, be comfortable with the mistakes I made and now be open enough to share everything. All I hope for is just to help at least one person and make them feel understood and not alone. 

I hope my story allows people to learn from my mistakes and be better than me at handling adversity. In the end, you’ll look back and realize it was another part of your life that taught you so much about yourself. I am proud of my struggles. They made me realize how important it is to talk about mental health; it is now my first and foremost priority, whereas before my injury it was something I barely acknowledged.

Personally, I feel that mental health is under-discussed in regards to athletes dealing with injuries. Although I never hope anybody experienced what I did, I know at one point or another everybody goes through challenges in life. I want to tell you that you are strong enough and the light does come at the end of the tunnel. 

To athletes going through serious injuries, don’t believe for one second that you’re alone in your recovery because you will always have someone to talk to, and you will conquer your adversity. Suffering in silence is something I want to end for everyone. This story isn’t about me; it’s about helping the athlete who reads this story and in result chooses to put their mental health first. Believe in yourself, trust the process and be proud of what your struggles show you. From one athlete to another, you got this.