Before Sarah began her Senior year of high school she was diagnosed with compartment syndrome, and spent a full month in the hospital after 10 surgeries on her leg. Today, Sarah is a member of the NAIT Ooks, a CCAA team in Edmonton.
I first met Sarah in the summer of 2016 as she was a “Captain for the day” recipient from our Team Canada auction. This meant that she would join us in all of our trainings as an honorary member of the Team Canada squad. She fit right in with the team, eager to attempt all of the things our coach was getting her to practice, completing it all with a smile.
If she never said anything about it you would never expect anything was physically wrong. But later explained that 2 years ago she was diagnosed with compartment syndrome, and spent a full month of the summer before her grade 11 year in the hospital fighting for her leg.
It was a full year of tests and excruciating pain before the proper diagnoses was made after she could no longer walk during a track meet. The girl literally crutched to her long jump before she was taken to the ER. A pressure test was completed to confirm the diagnoses, and she was booked for an easy surgery. Over the course of the week she developed an infection that turned septic and risked amputation. The surgeons were able to save her leg after 10 surgeries, and a skin graft, though 30% of her muscle was lost. But just a month after the last surgery she was back on the court competing with her high school team.
Talking with Sarah, and seeing her attitude towards sport, life and her setbacks you get that feeling that she is an exceptional person. She didn’t once complain about her situation while training with us, she didn’t sit out the more challenging the activities got, she did everything backed by the hope of her dream to play at the collegiate level, proving to herself and others that she is a fighter.
I wanted to share Sarah’s story for a few reasons.
We’ve been talking for some time and I found her message inspiring, and her resilience; a force to be reckoned with. She wants to create awareness for the condition and be a voice for those who may be struggling through the same rare pain that she went through.
So, I've asked her some questions to help you get a better feel for her life, for compartment syndrome, what she's doing now and where she wants to go.
1. You played a variety of sports in high school, what made you decide to stick with volleyball?
Honestly as much as I loved track (triple jump, long jump and high jump) I never had the passion like I do for volleyball. Yanno that feeling that you get when you make your favourite meal, and you just can’t wait to eat it. Or when you just wash your sheets and can’t wait to climb into bed… well that’s the rush that I get from volleyball. I can watch game after game, and I will never get bored. I worked hard in all sports, but volleyball came naturally to me. I have a passion and a love for the game.
2. When did you realize you had compartment syndrome? Can you tell us more about it, the experience you went through, and how it is now?
I would say I found out after another one of my bone scans came negative and I went back to my massage therapist because my calves were so tight. At this point she wasn’t able to put more than 2 fingers of pressure on my calves without me being white knuckled and in tears. I couldn’t stand the pain from a massage… so we knew from there that something was definitely wrong.
My mom helped diagnose me. I remember this very clearly. We were sitting on the couch and I was lying there with my legs elevated and she continued to ask me questions. By the end she was able to come to the conclusion of compartment syndrome. So we went to the doctor who said that it is very uncommon, and diagnosed by a very painful test that she could try. I wasn't worried about the pain of the test, but more about getting the results.
After as many x-ray’s, bone scans and other tests come back negative, all you think about is the likelihood that the next one will come back negative as well. So, we scheduled the test and I will admit it was one of the most painful things that I have experienced.
Basically to sum it up they take an 18-gauge needle (same size they use for cattle) and insert it 3 times on both the lateral and medial side of both legs to measure the pressure in your muscle. Then you run until you can’t anymore and the test is performed again to see if the pressure rose or not. It took about 10 minutes before I was in tears not able to run anymore. After the second test my pressure rose, indicating that I was in fact suffering from compartment syndrome.
The diagnoses was made around April of 2014. Soon after they scheduled me to see a surgeon. It was a very serious case because chronic compartment syndrome can quickly turn into acute syndrome – where the blood flow to your legs stops because the pressure in your legs is so high.
Since it is such a rare syndrome to have from doing low intensity activity the surgeon made me go through another pressure test to make sure that it was in fact real, well…it was! It was continuous back and forth about my personal decision if I wanted the surgery or not, but in the end we decided it was the right choice.
I went into surgery July 18, 2014.
3. You thought your athletic career would be finished after high school, but you earned a position on the NAIT Ooks in the CCAA. Can you talk about the struggles you faced in high school coming from a small town, and how you became a member of the NAIT program?
I put in a lot of hard work to reach my goals. I had a dream to play college ball and I was able to make it happen – myself. In the summer of grade 11 (year after surgery) I was feeling fine, pain was very minimal and I had the best summer of my life. I was able to attend 4 weeks of volleyball camps which put me into a position to get noticed by the team.
I attended a NAIT volleyball camp and was coached by some of the players themselves. I improved lots that week, and tried hard to show my work ethic on the court.
After the summer camps were over I got up the courage to email coaches. I emailed NAIT and he quickly replied with asking me to come to one of their practices. I went, scared outta my mind... I actually shanked a free ball I was so nervous. But with good word from other coaches and teammates I actually got signed that day. It was definitely one of the most exciting moments in my life!
It’s funny how athletes think they have to play for the best club teams to get onto college/university teams (don’t get me wrong though, it’s different for every player). I took an unconventional path. In my first 2 years of playing club I played for a team in Vegreville that my mom coached (Division 4). For my U18 year I went to play for Nooks in the city, but could not commit to the time as I was in grade 12 year and wanted to focus on my schooling.
I had to personally put in the time and effort to show people that I am a hard working athlete. If I didn’t put myself out there to attend camps and 1 on 1 training I wouldn’t have been scouted.
Work hard, show your passion and great things will happen!
4. This year is another challenge after detecting possible stress fractures in the same leg forcing you to take time off until April. What are some of the tools you use to stay focused and positive during rehab with the challenges you’ve faced and overcome?
The pain that came back in my legs wasn’t like before… so they did MRI and Bone Scan and the stress fracture actually came back negative. It’s frustrating because technically it’s just ‘shin splints’ a diagnostic that people assume will go away, but mine never do.
NAIT Athletic Therapy wants the best for me for all 5 years of my eligibility to be the healthiest I can be, so I'm forced to take some time off. At first I was angry, but after a couple weeks I remembered how much trauma my legs went through and how little time off I had. I am extremely grateful for them allowing me to take this time off to let my body heal. I am still going to every practice, and every game.
I would say a helpful tool is talking with people. (This is how Sarah and I initially got in contact). I wanted somebody who understands that going through an injury isn’t just physiotherapy and stats but there is also an emotional side to the physical pain.
I was angry during pre-season, when finding out about the news that I would be out for the season and could only find the negative in everything. During the middle of the season I was still upset but was able to find a way to give my teammates feedback to make them better. I wanted to do what I could to make the team better even though I was sitting on the side lines.
There are awful days, but some days are good. Sometimes I go into the gym and I am just so grateful to be there – to be a part of something so amazing, something bigger than me. I use those days, even if they are not as often, to have as a backup for a bad day.
I am now able to thank them for MAKING me take it off. Nobody knows if this time off will change everything and I will be back playing pain free, but at least we can say we tried everything and at that time I will have to make another decision. Right now though I am most focused on healing myself emotionally and physically to be able to come back next year stronger than I have ever been.
I had to overcome the challenge of motivation… I didn’t realize how hard it would be to go out to the gym and work on arms or do basic physiotherapy that I have done 10,000 times before. I must have not gone to the gym until 2 months after I was told about the shin splints, but now I'm doing my best to stay in shape and keep up with my exercises.
5. What are you studying in school?
I was always wanting to work in a grain elevator and study agriculture for post-secondary. After I worked at a grain elevator at home I realized I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to. When I went through the trauma with my legs I lost 30% of my muscle that died in my right leg. Before getting back into 100% playing I hired a personal fitness trainer to help me gain my muscle back. I realized that, it is what I wanted to do… I want to help athletes reach their maximum potential. So, I am studying Personal Fitness Training and hopefully will transfer somewhere to study Kinesiology and become an Athletic Therapist or Physical Therapist.
6. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I will admit that I am a dreamer, I love pushing myself and visioning myself doing things that I see in my dreams. After this year at NAIT I have 2 more before my program ends. I have thought about playing somewhere in the CIS once my program at NAIT ends. Once my 5 years are over I have always dreamt about trying out to play for a professional team. I always thought there is no harm in trying, right? I will work hard and push myself to do everything I can to make that dream true.
I will have completed my 5 years of eligibility and graduated from school. I aspire to be working with a team to help athletes reach their maximum potential and be the best version of themselves. I want to work with athletes post injury to make them better than they were before by being their personal trainer and therapist!
7. You have gone through many challenges and you're only 18 years old. How has this shaped your approach sport and life?
It has made me love things more than I did before. Going through this trauma and almost losing my leg made me appreciate everyone and everything in my life. There was constantly somebody coming to visit me, and my family was always around me. I remember I called my Dad to say goodnight and 2 hours later he walked into my room with my Aunty Brenda just to visit (it must have been 11pm!). After 1 of my surgeries I was being pushed to my room and I get there and my Aunty, Uncle, and some cousins were there waiting for me. I am so grateful for the family I have and how much of a support system they have been.
I could lie and say that going though that month was the hardest thing I had to do, but it wasn’t – after it was. I think during was harder on my Mom and Family… having to celebrate my sister and brother’s birthday in the hospital was not ideal for them but they never complained. I remember the day I was discharged it was also my sister’s graduation party. She had to plan the entire party herself and she never complained.
Most athletes after going through something like this would have given up and moved on to find something else that they could be passionate about. My love for volleyball was way too strong and it pushed me through the hardest times over the last 2 years, the injury made me love the game even more.
The experience has made me cherish who I am around and what I am able to do. I think we all think we cherish every day, but sometimes it's not in perspective until something traumatic happens to you (hoping it never does).
8. If you could give any advice to a young athlete struggling with injury that wants to continue playing beyond high school, what would you say?
For any athletes that may figure they aren’t good enough to make a team beyond high school, I would say just go for it. I always thought that I wasn’t good enough, but I had an amazing high school coach who always believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He helped me to overcome my fear of failure and pushed me to email the post secondary coaches – there is nothing to lose!
For those struggling with injury. It isn’t the end. It is a long time of recovery, but take the time off. If I would have taken the time to recover after my surgery then this year would have been a year of growing and developing more skill not watching my team grow with me on the sidelines.
It’s kind of what you would expect someone to say… but live every day to the best of your ability because you really never know what will happen. Work hard, put in effort and don’t give up.
Sarah's favourite quote?
"Don't settle for anything less than butterflies"
Check her out on Instagram or Twitter @sarah_melenka.