Since 1993, our three sons have played in just over a thousand soccer matches. Throughout that time, we’ve suffered our share of bruises, abrasions, sprains and pains, but never a broken bone. But unfortunately, that streak has come to an end.
This past Saturday, Number Three’s U14 team was nursing a 1-0 lead in the closing moments of their first round match in the Atlanta Cup, one of the most competitive (and roughest) soccer tournaments in the Southeast. The ball was rolling loose about 25 yards from our goal and their center midfielder, a rugged and skilled Hispanic youth weighing about 150 lbs, began to run onto the ball to take a shot that would have undoubtedly tested our keeper in the extreme.
Into the breach stepped Number Three who attempted a slide tackle to clear the ball away from the charging middie. Seeing Number Three stepping up, the opposing player changed his mind on the shot and also attempted to slide toward the loose ball. Number Three made contact with the ball, but his opponent did not. Instead, with his studs up, he crashed into Number Three’s right lower leg.
I was nearly even with the play and clearly saw Number Three’s lower leg bend backward from the force of the blow and heard a distinct SNAP! My son is a tough-as-nails, battle-hardened defender who rarely complains about the nickle and dime dings that he accumulates nearly every match. So when I heard his painful wail and saw him flopping in agony, I knew that things were going to be very different this time around. I also felt like somebody had kicked me in the gut.
“Oh no, oh no,” I remember saying. I held my hands over my mouth and knelt and waited on the sideline while his coach tended to him, and moments later, the referee pointed toward me and motioned for me to come onto the pitch.
Now most of you know that I’m an optometrist, and although I had covered legs in first-year gross anatomy, it had been a few years since I had dealt with something so low on the body. But I do know a thing or two about triage, and as I knelt by Number Three’s side, these are the thoughts that were racing through my head:
- I can’t stand the sight of my son rolling and screaming in agony, but this is 1000x better than the sight of him motionless and silent.
- I don’t see any exposed bone
- His leg isn’t bent into a pretzel, or at some unnatural, Joe Theisman-like, ninety degree angle, nor is it flopping about unhinged–all good.
- I ask him where he had been hit. He says, “My shin!” Sure enough, there’s a black welt–complete with Adidas stud marks–about midway on his lower leg which appears to be expanding rapidly.
- I ask him if his knee was involved and he says no. Good again.
A moment later, I was joined by our keeper’s Dad, Dr. M, a podiatrist and someone who thankfully knew the difference between a tibia and a fibula. He palpated the area and felt comfortable enough to recommend moving Number Three to the sideline. The two of us carried him there, while his shocked and concerned teammates gathered around. Coach reminded them that they still had a game to win, and they returned to the pitch and did just that.
A couple of our players’ siblings retrieved Dr. M’s medical bag from his car and we proceeded to wrap an ice pack around Number Three’s swollen limb. He was starting to settle down a bit, but was still in considerable pain. At no time during this whole episode at this so-called “prestigious tournament” did a field marshall appear to help, nor was there any sign of a trainer or EMT anywhere on the premises. Not all tournaments have these, but many do, and I would have surely thought that this one would.
After the match concluded, one of our parents did manage to find a tournament official who then drove a John Deere Gator to pick up Number Three and carry him to the car. Had there been signs of a serious fracture, I would have insisted on an ambulance, but I decided that we could probably manage on our own. I was still hoping at this point that this was a bad bone bruise, that the loud SNAP I heard was the sound of his shin guard becoming dislodged, that things weren’t as bad as they had first seemed.
I talked with my wife and told her what had happened. I told her my plan was to get him back to the hotel, elevate and ice and use ibuprofen, and watch him closely for an hour or two before deciding whether to take him to a hospital. Still, I tried to keep my eyes open for an urgent care center or hospital on the way back to the hotel. Any other time I would have seen a dozen, but today there were none in sight.
I’m glad I called my wife when I did. Moments after we hung up, she received a call from a friend whose husband had found about Number Three’s injury while attending a tournament in Memphis and then called her. Bad news travels fast, indeed.
Once back at the hotel, I used a luggage cart to get Number Three up to the room where I gave him a couple of ibuprofen, repacked his ice bag and elevated his leg on a pillow. The afternoon was generally marked by improvement. There was a decrease in pain (along with an increase in appetite–always a good sign), as well as a reduction in the swelling. He fell asleep for awhile and awoke refreshed and comfortable enough to watch some college football on TV. He managed to hop around the room some and at one point was able to put the injured leg on the ground enough to balance himself while he took a shower. His team lost their second match, and he wanted to go down to the lobby to greet them when they returned.
Later that evening, we went to dinner and he ate his usual wheelbarrow full of food. But the leg started swelling noticebly during dinner, and by the time we got back to the hotel, the pain was starting to return. He still couldn’t put any weight on the leg and I began to suspect more strongly than ever that it was fractured. But it was Saturday night in Atlanta, and I didn’t have a clue about which hospital would be a safe one to go to. I gave him more ibuprofen and determined that I would get up early in the morning, pack him in the car, and make the run back to Huntsville and more familiar turf.
That turned out to be a good decision. We made the trip in just over 3 hours (a new record for me), picked up Eyegal, and headed straight to the pediatric ER at Huntsville Hospital. There we were met by a small army of nurses and technicians who were sitting idly in an otherwise empty ER, but who quickly sprang into action went they saw they had a patient in pain. Number Three’s doctor turned out to be a former college soccer player–and defender–and the two of them joked and shared some battle stories about the nasty things that defenders do to cocky, prima donna strikers.
After the X-rays, the doc returned with the verdict–a clean, through and through break of the tibia, the large “shin bone” in the front of the lower leg. Fortunately, the bones are aligned and it doesn’t appear that it will require surgery. He applied a temporary splint and indicated that we were probably looking at six weeks of healing time in a hard, above the knee cast. We’re hoping the orthopedist will permit something below the knee which will allow for a little more mobility, but it still likely means the end of the fall soccer season for Number Three.
And that, dear readers, is the anatomy of a broken bone. Here’s hoping that our first one will also be our last.