A career-ending injury only comes around once, so there’s little chance to prepare yourself for its impact. Author Shannon Hirsch knows too well how brutal a brush with the end can be. . .
A CAREER CUT SHORT, A FIGHTER UNDETERRED
I wake up again. It’s about 3:30 in the morning this time. I’ve woken up over a dozen times tonight, never sleeping more than half an hour. There is a searing pain in my right shoulder. No matter how I lay it is a pain so severe I can’t think of anything else. I toss and turn until sunrise, sobbing because I haven’t slept for three nights in a row.
Finally, mercifully, it’s 7:00. I get up, brush my teeth, put on my running shoes and head downstairs to the gym. It’s a hot April morning in Chiang Mai at Hongthong Muay Thai Gym and I have to run before training at eight. I am forcing one foot in front of the other, eyes burning from lack of sleep and the exhaust fumes I inhale every morning I run along the highway near my gym. Every time I run, I pass this rice field (right). It’s pretty, and seeing it wakes me up a little. By the time I am running the way back, I can’t feel my legs or my right arm.
I have my sixth fight scheduled at Thapae Stadium in less than a week, but I am in no condition to fight right now, much less jog alongside a highway.
Back at the gym, I decide to train and do what I can. Hitting pads with my trainer, he calls me zombie. By the time the 4th round comes, I cannot feel my right hand and punching with my right arm is excruciating. I am near tears, from exhaustion or pain or frustration; I can’t tell anymore. I collapse holding my right arm at the end of the session and my trainer tells me to go to the hospital this afternoon.
How the hell am I going to fight like this?
AT THE HOSPITAL
I take an Uber to Bangkok Hospital after eating at my favourite lunch spot. I’m hoping to see a doctor, get my shoulder sorted and be back in time to train in the afternoon. The hospital staff is incredibly friendly and helpful getting my papers filled out and asking about my symptoms. A short while later, they tell me the doctor is ready to see me.
I go into the office where the man sitting behind the desk introduces himself as a neurosurgeon. I’m confused, because it’s my shoulder that hurts and I have luckily not taken any bad headshots in my fights. He asks about my symptoms again and I tell him, “my neck and right shoulder hurt, I lose feeling down my arm and hand periodically, and I’m having trouble gripping with my right hand.” He’s silent for a moment before telling me he thinks I need to have an MRI done. I ask if that’s really necessary as I’m not sure what will be covered by insurance at this point. He says he strongly recommends it.
I am escorted to another floor and into a hospital gown. I’ve never had an MRI before. They tell me to lay perfectly still and put in earplugs. It takes 45 minutes. The random bleeping and booming of the machine is oddly soothing as I lie there in limbo, not knowing what is going on and unable to move or do anything even if I did. Finally, I am almost sleeping when they pull me out and escort me back downstairs. The results will take a couple hours to process and be reviewed. I realize I am lucky that this happened here in a sense; in Ontario where I’m from, the wait time for routine MRIs can be months long.
I check the time and see I’ve still got a few hours before afternoon training. I could still make it.
I am brought back into his office and there is an image on his computer screen of someone’s spine. It looks like the aftermath of a long game of Jenga. It also looks painful. A minute later, I realize it’s my neck.
That’s my neck, all twisted and deformed. I have three herniated discs and one of them is pinching a nerve. I recall a hard clinching session from about a week ago when I felt a painful jerk about three minutes into a ten-minute round. I can feel the discs sliding out of place now.
The doctor has been talking this whole time, but I can’t hear anything. He shows me another view and I can see three discs crushing into the spinal column. His voice comes into focus now telling me I’ll be starting physical therapy today. I tell him I have a fight next week, plus another fight at the end of the month that I have to make it to. That’s a card that’ll be televised on Channel 7 from Isaan. My fight won’t be on TV, but I know it’s the first step towards something big.
He looks at me, confused why this isn’t sinking in for me. He tells me I can’t fight anymore, that I might never fight again. “You risk becoming paralyzed if you fight.”
The word rings in my head and panic sets in. I burst into tears and stop hearing anything he says. I don’t even remember his name, honestly. My whole life in Thailand is over. The card in Isaan, the stadium belt we had been in talks for, the grind of constant training – all gone. I’ll go home to Toronto and start my life over. Needless to say, I didn’t make it to training that afternoon. It would be a while before I stepped foot in the gym again.
AN END IS A BEGINNING
The next few weeks pass in a blur of sunny days, rehab appointments, drinking Chang in the afternoon, getting soaked during Songkran, visiting the beautiful town of Pai… and trying to picture my life without fighting in it. I’ve cancelled both my fights and news of my potentially career-ending injury spread around the camp. My friends during this time are totally invaluable to me. I don’t know what I would do without them. I still run every morning, the only exercise I am allowed to do, but I don’t wear Thai shorts to do so anymore. I don’t know if I’m still a fighter and I realize that I don’t know who I am without fighting. This is a thought that scares me to this day because no one can do this forever.
The day to leave for home has come. I spend the day packing, sorting through my stuff and appreciating the beauty of my everyday life here. The yellow and orange flowers hanging off the trees; the rice fields now overgrown; the air clearing from burning season with torrential rains in the evening. How fitting that I should leave this country now, amidst all this transition and change.
I am eternally grateful for the time I had in Thailand, regardless of the ending of my trip. I get a Grab car to the airport and struggle with my bags down the road. My friends offer to help but I foolishly refused, out of pride or desperately needing to think I’m still strong. I can’t feel my right hand when I go to open the car door. I am right-handed but I have been using my left hand for basic tasks.
I try to sleep on the flights home but I am restless, the pain in my neck waking me up and trying to imagine life back home again. When I land in Toronto, it will be zero degrees and there was some sort of ice storm mere days before I landed. When I get my bags, clear customs and see my parents for the first time in months, we take my bags outside to the car where there is a dusting of snow and I start screaming from the cold having lived in endless summer for five months. My neck hurts more in the cold and the numbness persists in my arm. I wonder if I’ll ever get better again.
I NEVER STOPPED RUNNING
I still run all the time, but the truth is that I hate running and I only do it for fighting. Without fighting, it loses meaning and purpose.
I am running home in the rain on April 25th, the day I was supposed to fight in Isaan. At 9:00 a.m. here, it’s 8:00 p.m. in Thailand – approximately when I would be getting ready or even fighting on the card. Instead I am running, running, running for no real reason. I push the pace until I think my lungs will give out, but finally it is my eyeballs that betray me. I walk home, sobbing, cooling down and looking up at the trees that line my street, wondering when I will stop crying and start fighting again.
I have regained feeling in my right hand for the first time in weeks and I am scared to be hopeful. I do my exercises everyday, sometimes feeling worse from the effort. The truth is that being a pro fighter is not really about fighting in the ring, it’s about fighting with yourself when you struggle through your physical therapy alone at 10 on a Friday night. It’s about running in the rain without a fight scheduled, not knowing if you’ll ever get into a ring again, but fighting to get back in with all your heart. I had to show more heart during this time of my life than I ever did in a fight.
Today, I have put the work in and, miraculously, I’m back to training. Now I run to and from Balance MMA, knowing that I am running to fight before the end of the year. Next week I see my doctor and I expect to be cleared for contact again. Crazy… I am amazed that I can write those words. But I am not out of the woods yet. The risk of re-injury is high. It is so high I wondered if I even wanted to try to fight again. So I tried to picture myself doing something else – and I can’t. There’s too much fight in me.