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My Tommy John experience: Brendan McGuigan

This week features Brendan McGuigan, a Richmond Spider whose story is one of patience and optimism

Brendan McGuigan’s story is still in the process of being completed, but just from our short conversation I could tell that his outlook on the process has been remarkable. He been able to deal with the process of recovery through a resilient spirit, optimism, and an incredible amount of patience. He provides a positive outlook during the process of recovery that many struggle with. If you have had Tommy John surgery and would like to participate, feel free to email me at shawnbrody9@gmail.com, or DM me on Twitter (@ShawnBrody) to let me know.

Shawn Brody: So tell me a little bit about yourself — what happened, where did you go, how did it tear, stuff like that.

Brendan McGuigan: So, I partially tore my UCL [Ulnar Collateral Ligament] in between my junior and senior year of high school. That summer I was dealing with that. It went misdiagnosed at first, they thought it was just tendinitis, so I kept trying to throw through it. Then it just didn’t get better, it kept getting worse and worse. Every time I touched a baseball, it was just pain. Then I finally got a doctor to figure out exactly what it was, after an MRI, and [he] realized it was partially torn. It didn’t need surgery, though, so I just shut it down and did some physical therapy for a couple months. It never bothered me again for almost three years.

Then, this past February, I was getting ready for my start opening weekend down in Wilmington, North Carolina—we were playing UNCW. Opening weekend, no matter what level you’re at, is one of the most exciting times. It was no different for me. It was my sophomore season, I was coming in as a weekend starter, and I was all pumped up. I was excited. I was ready to go. Warming up, my arm felt great. The first two innings, it was the same thing. My arm felt good, I had command of all my pitches. There were no issues, I was kind of in the groove. Then I got out there for that third inning, and after a few pitches I felt my forearm start tightening up a little bit. And then I felt it tighten up more and more, then I just felt the knot move down into the inside of my elbow — kind of where your UCL is.

I threw a couple more pitches, and it didn’t feel like tightness anymore. It, it just hurt. There was pain there. I threw one pitch, it hurt real bad, and the guy bunted it. I picked it up and threw it to first, and it felt like a knife went through my elbow. I got back up there and threw to the next hitter, I think it was six pitches. Each one, it was the same thing. It felt like a knife went through my elbow. I finally had to call time after that batter. My coach came out, my trainer came out, and I came out of the game. After an MRI a week later, I got the results back. Sure enough, my UCL was torn completely in half.

Brendan pitching

SB: That’s tough. I can relate because I was also a sophomore when I tore mine, and I know how tough it was to come in opening weekend, as a weekend starter, only to deal with [an elbow injury] on your first start. I can only imagine how it felt on a much bigger level.

BM: Yeah, it was tough. It was weird, too, because there was no pop at all. There was obviously a lot of pain, but I didn’t hear a single pop. The doctor was saying that I was a bit of a rare case because usually whenever the UCL tears completely in half, there’s usually some sort of complications, whether it’s nerve damage, pulled some forearm muscles, or something in your flexor tendon. A lot of cases are high-grade tears that are 75 percent or more, but mine was completely torn in half and everything else was perfectly intact.

SB: Where did they take your new UCL from?

BM: They took it from the tendon in my right wrist.

SB: When you were told you needed Tommy John, how did you feel and what was your initial reaction?

BM: I mean, obviously I was crushed. But at the same time, I kind of knew it was coming. When I came out of that game opening weekend, I knew what happened. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me what happened. I didn’t need my trainer to diagnosis it. I knew exactly what happened.

And it was just one of those things where the trainer was trying to keep me hopeful, saying things like, "You don’t know, there’s so much that attaches right in that same spot. It could be something else, we don’t know for sure. Let’s wait on the MRI. Don’t get caught up in it." But I knew.

So, in a sense, I had kind of prepared myself for it. But there’s still not much you can do to help prepare to hear that. You probably relate to that after going through it, too. It’s one thing to prepare yourself in your mind, but it’s another thing to hear it coming out of a doctors’ mouth.

SB: Definitely like a gunshot to the gut.

BM: Oh yeah.

SB: Did you ever struggle with deciding to have the surgery, or hanging it up instead? What was it like deciding to go through with the surgery?

BM: For me it really wasn’t a question at all. It was more a question of, "how soon can I get it," and "how soon can I be back on a mound." I don’t even think it even crossed my mind to hang up the cleats. It was just purely a matter of how soon can I get it done, and what is my time table for return.

SB: What were some of your short-term expectations with the procedure, and then what were some of your long-term expectations?

BM: Short-term, I really had no idea what to expect. The initial recovery phase, I’ve never broken an arm or done anything to be in a sling. The first few days post-surgery, I didn’t even know what to expect out of that.

Long-term, I kind of had the mentality that I was going to crush this rehab and recovery. You look at Marcus Stroman, with his ACL, coming back before anyone thought he ever could. That was my mentality, that I was going to beat the odds. I was going to be back in however many months. They said it was 9-12 months, according to the doctors, and my mentality was, ‘well, I’m going to be back in nine’. But as it went on, and as my rehab kept going, I realized how unlikely that was. There were times where you’re going through your initial recovery, you’re trying to get your range of motion back in the brace, you’re starting to do a little bit of forearm work. Some forearm strengthening stuff with, like, a two-pound dumbbell and the thing feels like it’s 35 pounds.

There were definitely times when I was sitting there trying to do rehab, trying to do my grip strength stuff, where I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to touch a baseball again. I didn’t think I’d be able to throw one again. Just, how weak it felt. How I had almost no range of motion (at certain points), and the amount of pain it took just to get it out, extended. It was just kind of hard to believe that I would be able to throw again.

Brendan in his first bullpen after TJS

It was definitely an adjustment of the mindset. Looking at the recovery, trying to be more patient with it. But, as it goes on, it’s so funny how the small victories get celebrated so much. Whether it’s getting to extend your brace out another 15 degrees, or ditching the brace eventually. The first time I was allowed to flip a baseball with just my wrist, and then the first day of throwing. With my throwing program, each time I completed a step and graduated to the next step. It was like those small victories, each step of the way, just kind of kept me going. I mean, how excited I got just to throw a baseball 30 feet, and then "oh, I get to go to 45 feet in two weeks!," then 60 feet. It just kept going and kept feeding it.

Now I’ve been throwing bullpens for about a month. After each week I add another set, and it started out 50 percent. I finally finished the 50 percent phase, and this week I’m actually about to go to the 75 percent phase. It’s those little victories, those little accomplishments each step of the way that just keep me going. It’s helpful, and definitely eases my mind. To know that there’s kind of like a list I can check-off on my way through my recovery, my throwing program, my mound program. To say that I’m *this* much closer to being back on a mound in a game.

SB: So trying not to focus on the whole recovery, in general, and taking it piece by piece?

BM: Oh definitely. This whole process has been a lesson in patience, for me. I was always a very results-driven pitcher. I could’ve thrown a good game, but I didn’t care if we lost. It didn’t matter. It was all about the results, for me.

But, after going through this, I have learned a lot more to focus on the process. Just taking it step by step, focusing on the process, and what I need to do to get better each and every day. Just taking it one day at a time, one step at a time. "What can I do today that will make me be able to get on a mound as fast as possible?," that type of thing. Looking at each day, how to tackle it, and how to get back healthy.

SB: So what was it like to wake up immediately after the surgery? To look down and see the brace, the towel covering your arm, and just the realization that it doesn’t feel the same as it did when you went to sleep.

BM: I was so out of it when I was in the recovery room and came out of the anesthesia. My dad actually took a bunch of videos of me, because I was just talking my head off. I remember the weirdest part was that they put nerve block all on your arm so that you can’t feel your arm at all, and it took almost a day to wear off.

Brendan post-surgery

I was sitting there with my arm in my lap. I could see it in my lap, my mind knew it was in my lap, so I felt it in my lap—even though I couldn’t actually feel my arm. Then the nurse moved my arm another place, off to the side so she could fix something, and my mind was blown. I was just freaking out because I still felt my arm in my lap, but I could see it two feet to the right [of my lap]. I was so confused. And, of course, being under the influence of all those pain meds and still coming off the anesthesia didn’t help that.

(laughs) That was just such a strange feeling, and something I’ve never felt before. Just not being able to feel a limb. The whole ‘phantom limb’ thing. Yeah, that was a very, very strange feeling.

SB: So what emotions did you struggle with leading up to the surgery, and what emotions did you struggle with following the surgery?

BM: I was very anxious leading up to the surgery. I tore my UCL opening weekend, so it was like February 21st, I believe, and I wasn’t able to get surgery until the week after our Spring Break. I wasn’t able to get surgery until March 16th. So I had like a three-week waiting process of knowing my fate and not being able to do anything about it. I think that was one of the hardest parts, for me. I was very, very anxious to get it over with. I knew surgery was coming, and I knew until I had surgery there wasn’t really anything I could do for myself, to make it better.

That was a very tough three weeks. I felt helpless. Just knowing there was nothing I could do until after surgery. Then, after surgery was done, I think it kind of helped the mentality because I knew every step from here was a step in the right direction. Everything I did is now helping make it better.

But being in a sling, in a brace, as your season goes on — you’re on the field with your team every game, you’re in the dugout, and you’re just feeling completely helpless. Not being able to go in the game when your brothers, your best friends are in there, it’s tough not to be able to take the field with them. It was very tough. Especially when a game gets out of hand, you just can’t help but think, "What if I was healthy? Could I have helped this?" That was definitely tough, especially because our season last year, we had a few key injuries pitching-wise. It made for a very tough year to be sitting on the side and not able to do anything about it. The overall feeling of helplessness was probably the biggest thing.

SB: So how did those emotions affect your mental state? What was the biggest mental struggle that you dealt with? Did you struggle with depression?

BM: A little bit. I don’t think I went into a full-blown depression, by any means, but there was definitely a little bit of it. Especially being in the sling and the brace the first six or so weeks post-surgery when you still can’t do as much. Like I said, it’s tough watching everyone be able to take the field when you’re stuck sitting in the dugout. It’s tough sitting off to the side watching your team lift, just knowing you can’t do stuff that you could do before. It’s one of those things where I’d lay awake at night wondering, "what if I was healthy." Playing in my head how this year, how that season, would’ve gone differently if it didn’t happen.

I definitely kind of struggled with the "why me?", but I tried to stay positive as much as possible. I tried to keep those thoughts out. I didn’t want to let that control me and cripple me. I didn’t want to let that take control of my whole mind and mentality. I wanted to get back out there, and I realized after a couple weeks that just dwelling on it, thinking about how unlucky I am and about how things could’ve been different if this didn’t happen, those weren’t going to get me anywhere. I just tried to stay as positive as possible and, for my own mentality and mindset, think about next year. I tried to set my sights on 2017 and what that year was going to be like, when I was healthy again, rather than think about what could’ve been in 2016.

SB: Did going through TJS cause you to resent, hate, or feel angry toward the game of baseball? How did the surgery change your perspective on the game, in general?

BM: It definitely didn’t make me resent or hate baseball. If anything, I think it made me realize that I may have taken the game of baseball for granted a little bit. I think it definitely made me appreciate it more. I mean, every once in a while everyone has a bad day, everyone is tired, they don’t want to be at the field to practice. But once you’re in a position where you’re stuck in a sling or a brace, you can’t play or you can’t throw. Even just going to play catch with a friend, you couldn’t even do that.

I think it just made me realize how lucky I was to be able to play, and to try not to take it for granted anymore. Truly appreciate the little things about the game that sometimes get monotonous in season when you’re healthy and everything is going normal. You realize, when you’re in this position, that those aren’t normal, those aren’t mundane. Those are things to be appreciated.

SB: Did you ever feel alienated by some of your teammates, or did you ever start to resent them that you were physically unable to do?

BM: I definitely didn’t feel alienated at all. We have a small team. We’ve got a smaller roster size than most. We only have, like, 31 players rather than the normal 35, and we’re a very close-knit team. There was never a time I felt alienated by teammates.

And resentment, I don’t think that’s the right word—jealously, maybe. I never resented teammates because they were able to pitch when I couldn’t, but I definitely envied the fact that they were able to go out there and still pitch and take the mound every five days. To go out there and do what they love, and compete. I think that was the hardest part for me, because I am such a competitor. Not being able to compete out there. I still felt like part of the team, but not fully in the competition side, because I wasn’t able to do anything to help win.

SB: That you had the surgery is indicative of the fact you had a talent for playing baseball, a love for the game, a desire to continue playing. After surgery you were robbed of an ability that has essentially come to define you, in a way. How did you deal with that, and what kind of methods did you use to cope?

BM: Oh man, I really turned to prayer a lot more than I had. I’m Catholic, my faith has been a pretty big part of my life, but it was one of those things where I had relaxed a bit on my prayer life, pre-surgery. Once I got hurt and went through that, it was like I had no choice but to turn back to God in a deeper way, and know that it was part of His plan for me, as a baseball player. That there is a greater design for me, and there was a reason that this was written into the plan. I guess knowing that was comforting. It helped me set my sights on 2017 and think about the recovery, the rehab, and knowing what was in store once I was healthy again.

SB: What is your biggest fear about coming back?

BM: The most obvious one is not coming back as strong or as good as before. Not being able to perform at the same level, that’s definitely a fear. Another one is, I found myself at some points in the rehab and recovery being a little tentative because I don’t want to hurt it again, you know? You feel a little twinge in your elbow when you push too hard one day, and all of a sudden memories of the day you tore it come flooding back.

I definitely don’t want that happening again. I just have to trust in the foundation I built in the recovery and the strengthening phase of it and hope that it holds up, but I think re-injuring it is definitely a fear.

SB: Do you think because that is a big fear that you have a better feel for your arm and what makes it hurt, what makes it sore?

BM: Definitely. It’s definitely made me think about my mechanics more. Just breaking down my own mechanics, breaking down the way I throw. Trying to figure out what can help me take stress off my arm. I’ve been focusing recently on how I can use my lower body and core more than I already do because I want to take as much stress off my arm as possible. That way once I come back there’s even less chance of reinjuring it, or hopefully it doesn’t get as sore as frequently.

Just trying to go from there, looking at old video of myself, doing dry work in front of a mirror. Just breaking down my mechanics, seeing what I can do, seeing how I can change things. Watching videos of different MLB guys, seeing how they use their lower body, and trying to imitate that.

SB: So you said that you didn’t really struggle with full-on depression, more that you struggled with self-doubt. Do you wish that someone would’ve warned you about that? That someone would’ve warned you what going through this was like?

BM: I actually was very lucky that I had an older teammate, his name was Jon De Marte, and he had gone through, I think, four surgeries in his five college years. He’s a sixth-year senior with us now, and from the day I got hurt he was in my corner talking to me. He was in my ear preparing me and helping me out with what to expect. What I was going to feel. He would just text me all the time, check up on me, because, he has been through it. He knows what it’s like.

I was very lucky to have him prep me for what I was going to go through. While I was going through it, I was able to lean on him, turn to him, and talk to him, when no one else would understand. I was very lucky to have him in that locker room with me to be able to talk things through with.

SB: What would you tell someone who is about to have Tommy John?

BM: I would definitely advocate to focus on the process. Like I was talking about earlier, take it day-by-day. Tommy John recovery is a roller coaster, it really is. There are days where your arm feels amazing. Whether you’re in the brace and you have good range of motion one day, and the next day you don’t. If you’re in your throwing program or mound program and your arm feels great, like it did before surgery, and the next day it just hurts.

It is just such a roller coaster, and you just have to take it day-by-day. You can’t get too low on the lows. You can’t let them get in your head because you know that, even if it’s not a good day for your arm, you’re on the right track for making it better and making it healthy again. I would just tell someone who is about to have surgery to focus on the process, take it day-by-day, celebrate the small victories, and just go one step at a time. It’s baby steps, but they get you healthy, and you’ll get there eventually.

SB: Your scar. Do you consider it a badge of honor, a reminder of some sort of failure, a relic of time growth, something of that nature, and did you get a tattoo over it?

BM: I did not get a tattoo over it, but I do actually have a tattoo that is the date of my surgery, in Roman numerals. I guess you could say I consider it a badge of honor. There’s a couple guys on my team who have had different elbow surgeries. There’s a couple guys who have had surgery on their nerves, and our volunteer assistant coach last year had Tommy John when he was in college. The four of us would joke around and call it the zipper club — the zippers on our elbows with the scars.

It definitely is a reminder of adversity and conquering adversity. Just, perseverance, determination, and knowing that I won’t let a surgery or the name of a surgery define my career. Every day I want to work to get back to where I was before surgery, and even better. The surgery doesn’t change my goals in baseball, it’s just a speed bump in the road to get there. It’s definitely a reminder of all that, and knowing what I had to work through.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, producer of In Play, Pod(cast), and a pitcher recovering from Tommy John at Howard Payne University. He is a Junior majoring in Business Management with a minor in Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com