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AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 27, Number 4, 2018

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Living on Both Sides of Medicine: Figure Skater Turned Medical Student

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My interest in figure skating sparked when I was six years old, after watching a hockey game on television. After attempting the sport, I quickly realized that I preferred skating more than playing the game. I pivoted to figure skating, where I could indulge my eagerness to be on the ice and not have to check other people in the process.

Once I graduated from high school, I moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., to continue my training at the world-renowned Broadmoor World Arena, an Olympic facility for U.S. and international ice skaters. I had the opportunity to train with other nationally and internationally competitive skaters and learn from some of the best coaches in the region. Once I moved to Colorado, I advanced to a higher competitive level, thus my training became more intense. I skated for hours each day and cross-trained on and off the ice six days a week.

About six months after moving, during a doctor’s visit, a nurse practitioner incidentally found that I had grade 1 spondylolisthesis at L3. I had not noticed any significant back pain up until that point, thus the informal diagnosis was not thought to be problematic. However, months after that visit, tremendous back pain ensued secondary to the spondylolisthesis. My injury was a consequence of the constant pressures that skating, specifically jumping, put on my body. Jumping requires a large amount of torque, speed and force. From the few kinesiology studies that have been done on figure skaters, it is estimated that the execution of a competitive jump requires an athlete to produce rotational velocities of approximately 4.1 and 5.4 meters per second. Then, when a jump is landed, an athlete’s body is consequentially subject to pressure amounting up to eight times their body weight. These forces, combined with my spondylolisthesis, severely irritated my misaligned spine and led to further progression of my injury.

I proceeded to take a break from my training and undergo intense rehabilitation. After months of physical therapy, I returned to skating and immediately so did the back pain. Doctors had warned me that if the pain returned it would surely mean the end of my skating career, as the injury made jumping impossible. Just like many other figure skaters, the constant force of landing was too much for my spine to handle. However, after over a decade and a half of training, I refused to let the injury push me into early retirement. After consulting with my doctors, they agreed I could skate, but not jump. The caveat was that I would have to follow a strict rehabilitation schedule to return to skating and ensure I maintain my core strength for the rest of my life.

Determined to continue my career, I researched and learned how to recover quickly and sensibly. My doctors indulged my interest in my own recovery and allowed me to partake in the crafting of my own rehabilitation plan. During this time, my interest in medicine sparked. The doctors that offered solutions, rather than imposing barriers, were the ones who would later inspire me to pursue medicine.

Again, after months of rehabilitation, I came back to the ice, but now as a different skater. Since I was no longer able to jump, I pivoted again – this time to ice dance. This type of skating required no jumping, thus the threat of such repetitive force was eliminated. After five seasons of training as an ice dancer, I became nationally competitive and continued skating for another three seasons.

After my athletic career, I had a singular objective. I wanted to pursue medicine and help athletes in similar situations of despair. Having been injured and not wanting to quit, I empathize with the athletic mindset and want to inspire the injured, not tell them their careers are over, because those are such painful words for any athlete to hear. I discovered that I thrived on the medical challenges my personal injury and experience gave me. I now want to use that same exhilaration to help others.

After completing the Special Master’s Program at Georgetown University, I was granted admission to the George Washington School of Medicine this past year. I am already able to help others as a student and look forward to continuing this work as a professional in the future. While my injury no longer affects my daily life, I must keep up with my exercises to ensure that my diagnosis does not progress. My spinal injury has given me the ability to talk to patients from a place of experience. I know first-hand the threat and fear a life-changing diagnosis can impose. Although the severity of my injury is far less than that of others, I want future patients to know that I appreciate the difference a doctor’s sympathy and understanding can make.  

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