One night in October of 2012 I was having a Mexican food night with my friend on the men’s KHL team and we got to talking about injuries. He was on injured reserve at the time, having pulled his groin and I was beginning to feel the aches and pains of a long season. He remarked "eventually an injury is what takes everyone out of the game. One day, your body just starts to hurt too much to keep going." I remember thinking how sad that seemed. I couldn’t imagine the idea of not being able to be the one to decide when your playing days are over. As it turns out, that conversation was prophetic.
In March, after a tough battle for third place, I noticed that I couldn’t stretch as far in my butterfly. It was subtle at first, just a small pinch but it quickly progressed. By the end of the month I could hardly walk after practice and eventually, I could no longer drop to my knees to make saves. I went to a slew of doctors in Russia and each diagnosis was more frightening than the first: arthritis, torn ligament, broken bone, necrosis. Sitting in a random ward of an unfamiliar Russian hospital, I endured the pain of having an 8 inch needle thrust into my hip joint to see if the doctor could numb the nerve endings. I could put up with all of this, as scary as it was, just as long as I never heard the words "you’re done." Unfortunately, those were words started to be rattled off by every doctor I met and that’s when things really hit me.
I returned home to Alaska with little money, no health insurance, and no definitive diagnosis about what was going on in my hip. When I got off the plane, my Mom rushed me to the ER for an MRI scan to rule out the very serious speculation that I had necrosis (the dying of a bone). Thankfully, the MRI did not show evidence of necrosis but it did show large amounts of swelling in the joint and a thickening of the pubis bone. The ER recommended that I see a specialist. Great idea in theory, but there I was, watching the thousands of dollars pile up for the ER visit, with absolutely no way to pay for it. As luck would have it, I would end up in that very same ER two more times that week for ovarian cysts and viral meningitis. This was not the homecoming I had hoped for.
I spent the next three months applying for financial aid and asking doctors to take my case on pro bono. It was a very hard time for me. I had this sharp pain in my hip, no diagnosis, no way to pay for anything and the looming threat of not being able to play the game I love. Eventually, with a little divine intervention, I was admitted to an amazing program called Project Access that links uninsured, unemployed patients with top doctors that are willing to eat the costs of medical procedures. I met with my surgical savior Dr. John Lapkiss in September and was finally given the diagnosis that I had waited so many months to hear. I had an impingement in my hip and very probably a torn labrum. The procedure would be arthroscopic and within six months, I would hopefully have full use of my hip again. As I write this, I am sitting in my bed recovering from the surgery; sore, but happy that I may finally be on my way to recovery.
The last six months have been trying. For a long time I felt such a profound sense of loss because my identity had so long been tied up in hockey. It was as though my self worth was completely and utterly dependent on my ability to get in front of a hard rubber object. This injury has forced me to take a break from the game and it is extremely hard. On the flip side, this injury has also given me a new lease on life. I am now holding down my first ever office job and pursing my second master’s degree. I have found a niche outside of hockey and as difficult as it has been, I am grateful for the time I am getting with my family and I relish the opportunity to get to know myself as O’Hara Shipe, not just O’Hara Shipe the goaltender.
Of course, I couldn’t just walk away from the game completely this year! I am the very proud goaltending coach for the Team Alaska Girls Hockey Association. Honestly, I would have never guessed that I would love coaching as much as I love playing. Seeing my girls making saves and winning games has actually brought me to tears on several occasions, just don’t tell them that!
I hope that next year I will be able to resume my professional playing career and I know it will be a long road to recovery. Sometimes, all it takes is a little perspective in life to remind you that while you love the game, there is so much more to you than just hockey. As my Mom always reminds me, be grateful for all that you have and remember, hockey is what you do, not who you are.
Until next time,
O’Hara K. Shipe