Safe at home
Ryan O’Connor is a fourth-generation Longboater. He will be a senior in his Virginia Beach High School this year. Ryan’s dad, Patrick, is a naval officer serving in Washington and a Longboat Key resident. His granddad is one of our contributing columnists. His great grandmother, Emily Rudel, was an early and longtime resident of Country Club Shores. Ryan wrote this column during his ongoing recovery.
For 11 years, I’ve been playing America’s pastime, and for 11 years the ‘Great Game’ has treated me well. I couldn’t count the times I’ve sprained a finger after a ground ball took a bad hop, or the many thumbs I’ve jammed inside my mitt. I’ve worn a couple hundred pitches and turned countless ankles rounding any given base. Anyone who knows these pains knows what it is to fight through it all and stay in the game. And for those of you who play this game, nothing can make you want to give up the euphoric anxiety of waiting for the next pitching.
Before May 31, I had never experienced such strain. From tee-ball, through varsity high school ball, it had seemed unthinkable to voluntarily remove myself from the field. On that Thursday night, however, all choice was removed from the matter. In my third at-bat I came up with no men on and one man out. I drew a walk and stole second. On the next pitch, the batter dribbled the ball toward first. The pitcher covered, as I rounded third. Ready to score, I stood 15 feet down the line, waiting. The first baseman flipped the ball, and it trickled waywardly past. I dropped my head and sprinted for the plate. I slid, planted my heel and popped straight up. I turned my head and heard a faint crack, followed by a piercing pain. I looked down to see the dirt-stained baseball rolling by, giving way to drops of red pooling on the plate. The pitcher had turned to recover the loose baseball, and from 45 feet away, had turned and fired, and I was in the way. Finally I rose and looked to see the umpire’s call. I was safe, and hastened to the dugout.
With that tangy taste filling my mouth, I reached for the gauze offered by someone in the stands and stuffed it in my cheek. The game drew to a conclusion, and I quickly packed my bag and drove myself the short five minutes home, eager to get to bed and sleep off the injury. My mother suggested we go to the ER, but I thought all I would need was a good night’s sleep. It wasn’t until I ran my tongue over the left side of mouth that I realized ice and ibuprofen, the cure-all of any ball player, may not be enough to cure this. I succumbed to my mother’s advisement, and we drove to the nearest ER in our home of Virginia Beach.
At quarter of eleven that night, we checked in, and waited, the left side of my face throbbing. After vitals checks, painkillers and a CT scan, we learned that my lower jawbone had a clean break that would likely need surgery to repair. At hearing this news, my head fell back and hit the pillow. For the first time, I realized that my season was finished.
My father is a captain in the U.S. Navy, so our primary hospital in the Hampton Roads area is the “First and Finest” Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. The morning following the game, we ventured across the Elizabeth River for a consultation with the Oral Surgery staff at the hospital.
Before the corpsman had finished taking my vitals, Chief Resident of Oral Surgery Dr. Beale entered, followed by his attending physician, Dr. Carson. Dr. Beale proceeded to examine my condition, as I explained what exactly had happened. Then it was Dr. Carson who spoke. He very clearly explained that I had two options and explicitly related the risks and benefits of both. One was an invasive but efficient surgery, the other non-surgical but tedious.
As we spoke, Dr. Carson didn’t seem an imposing surgeon. He spoke with sympathy and with genuine concern regarding my well being, as did everyone on his staff. At the same time, his entire team gave an impression of incredible expertise. But what I found most remarkable about Dr. Carson was that he spoke to me. He asked me which method I would personally prefer, and I opted for the surgery. He looked to my mother, and she approved. Dr. Carson, who’s son was graduating that evening, offered to do the procedure that day, despite his personal obligation, and put my care in the absolute forefront. I was quickly taken to a room with a view of the river and awaited my surgery.
Barely 12 hours prior, I had sat on an aluminum bench, holding my catcher’s mask. And now I sat under a cool white sheet, a pair of needles stuck in my arm. I was briefed in the proceedings by the most energetic medical professional I can ever recall having met. The head nurse of my operating room, an Australian sailor, explained to me all that would happen. He made a very complicated procedure seem incredibly personal and put us all at ease. The surgeons arrived, explained once again what they would be doing, and headed to the OR. I said goodbye to my parents, and the Australian rolled my bed through the doors. I felt the warm rush of the IV, and an icy blast of frigid air as the door to the OR was opened. And then, in an instant, I was awake.
Awake may be a generous term for my state. I was certainly conscious. I could hear someone repeating “breathe” over and over again. After five hours under anesthesia, I found myself unable to remember to breathe. This struggle to wake seemed to go on for hours. But then the friendly Australian nurse appeared from around the curtain. His voice seemed to return to me the energy I was missing. I began to see the world around me as I had before. Before long, I was back in my room. I looked at the mirror and was greeted by a face swollen on every side. A corpsman came in, took my vitals and prepared me for the night.
I slept as soundly as I ever had before, despite the attentive monitoring of the nurses and their staff. Each hour, they checked my vitals and administered fluids and medications. Drs. Carson and Beale greeted me in the morning with the anesthesiologist. They explained that the surgery went well. They had installed a pair of titanium plates on the jaw, one at the impact site and another by the ear, and 18 hours after having surgery, I was heading home.
Three days after the procedure, I found myself back in the chair at NMC Portsmouth for the first of several weekly follow-up appointments. The doctors explained my liquid-only diet and a timetable for when I could return to regular eating. Dr. Carson made the proceedings sound very unintimidating. He again spoke to me sympathetically, and in a very comforting way in which few physicians can.
Since the procedure, I have returned to his chair every week and have been greeted by the same enduring kindness and incredible expertise on the part of Dr. Carson himself, as well as his entire team. Without the incredibly knowledgeable, extraordinarily supportive, and incredibly friendly and welcoming individuals of the Oral Surgery department, this experience and my personal recovery would have been an ordeal far more trying than it has been. It’s physicians like Dr. Carson and nurses like the Australian of the OR that have left me hugely impressed with the first and absolute finest Naval Medical Center in the world.