After an outstanding NRL rookie season in 2014-15 with the Waterloo Wildfire in which she was in the running to be league rookie of the year, forward Tori Duncan has been unable to step on the ice this season to score the many goals and assists she contributed to her team last season. Here is her deeply touching story, in her own words.
Like so many other people, sports have played an integral role in my life, specifically ringette and rugby. I began playing ringette at five years old. Rugby came into my life a little later as I started playing in grade nine of high school and continued to play until my second season at Conestoga College. Both of these sports have given so much to me over the years: life long friends, confidence, memories, a healthy lifestyle, and a community to depend on for love and support.
Saturday September 12th, 2015
This was my team’s first game of the rugby season and while I didn’t know it at the time, it would be my last. In the second half, I went to make a tackle and landed awkwardly on the side on my head. Up to this point in my sports career the worst thing I had done was pull my groin, so when I laid there with numbness running from my fingers up both of my arms, with the side of my face lying on the grass, I knew something was very wrong. My trainer, and the paramedics that arrived were nothing short of amazing as they calmed me down and transported me safely to Cambridge Memorial Hospital where I learned “my neck was broken.” In more medical terms, I had shattered my C5 vertebrae along with a slight dislocation of my spine. At this time I was transported by ambulance to Hamilton General Hospital.
Sunday, September 13th, 2015
This day was a very difficult day for my family as they waited for five and half hours while I was in surgery. My shattered C5 vertebrae was removed and put into a titanium mesh basket. A plate was then screwed to the above C4 and below C6 vertebrae. I am extremely grateful for the neurosurgeon, Dr. Murty, and his team for their expertise and commitment to my successful surgery.
Although the memory is foggy for me, I woke up overwhelmed with emotion and tears of joy, relief, and gratitude in my eyes. My family told me my first words after surgery were, “I am so thankful. I am so lucky. I’m so happy.” This perfectly describes my general outlook on my injury and recovery so far. I experienced firsthand how fortunate we are in Canada to have a health care system so readily available. One false movement or lack of care could have left me paralyzed today and I could not even begin to comprehend how drastically my life would have changed.
From my trainer, the paramedics, nurses and doctors, I am so thankful for the care I received. In particular, my ICU nurse, Cami, was outstanding. She did absolutely everything to make me feel comfortable whether it was changing my IV, braiding my hair or wiping the tears from my eyes. We are all so blessed to have had her caring for us.
Looking back, some moments stick out for me in the hospital. I vividly remember the first time I sat up after the surgery, and feeling like I wasn’t fully in control of my body. I just sat on the edge of my hospital bed with tears of so many emotions in my eyes and at this point the length of the road ahead of me set in. Another significant memory from my time in Hamilton was when I first began walking. Each walk was a milestone bringing me closer to leaving the hospital. The very first time I had walked up and down the ICU hallway I received a mini standing ovation from everyone gathered at the Nurses station as I passed by. It was pretty special to feel the nurses’ excitement for me.
So after my stay at the Hamilton General Hospital, I was sent home with instructions to rest and wear my neck brace for three months. At the time, three months did not seem like a significant amount of time considering what the alternative might have been. I think this may be a surprise, but in an odd way, my time spent at home seemed more challenging than my stay in the hospital. It just seemed to remind me of all the things I was restricted from doing and the little things, like sitting or lying down comfortably. I couldn’t go to the gym, which I usually went to at least 5 times a week. Fitness and sports has always been my outlet. I couldn’t join my Dad, who is my coach, or my sister Danielle and other teammates, at our practices. I also couldn’t finish my rugby season. This all seemed devastating as I was in the best shape I had ever been in and finally felt confident playing in the National Ringette League (NRL). I think the toughest part about my recovery at home was seeing all my friends and family continue with their lives and having to sit still while mine was on hold.
After the first week at home, I began feeling pains in my stomach and this was the start of my next hospital visit. I was admitted to St. Mary’s Hospital and then transported to Grand River Hospital for a bowel infection. I wasn’t able to eat for five days while the antibiotics killed the infection. This wiped me of all my energy, and I lost a significant amount of weight.
As a girl who had always been active in sports and fitness, it was definitely odd to look in the mirror and not recognize my body. I had lost a lot of muscle especially in my legs and arms. It became clear that this injury would offer two separate challenges: healing my bone, and getting back to a level of fitness I was in prior to my injury.
While I can’t play for my Waterloo Wildfire in the 2015-2016 season, I have been able to support my team by going to the games, having fun with my teammates off the ice and cheering them on. It is interesting to solely watch the game from the bench instead of being on the ice. I think I can take this opportunity to learn more about the game and study my opponents for next season. With that said, I think it is quite clear that I would prefer to be on the ice helping my team directly. My goal is to be in shape and healthy for the next season. I love ringette and cannot wait to be back out there!
Humour played a large role in helping my family and I overcome this injury. We all knew I was going to be okay in the end but first I needed to make it through the next three months. For about a month my mother and oldest sister, Jennifer, helped me as I sat on a handicap chair in the shower. I said to my Mom one day, “hey, did you ever think you would be helping me shower before I helped you?” and we both chuckled to each other. It was important to me to keep laughing.
Overall, this whole experience has helped me grow in a lot of ways. I’ve realized just how precious my health is as it gives me the ability to play sports and stay active. Throughout my injury, I really felt so loved as my family, friends, and coaches all reached out to me and I received many visits to the hospitals and at home. Thank you to everyone for their visits. My time off of sports gave me the chance to create new hobbies/interests like reading, politics, baking and spending more time with the people I love. I’ve heard this quote many times but it has grown to mean so much to me over the last few months: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.”
I have recently taken my neck brace off and have moved onto the next stage of healing and rehabilitating my neck. I am feeling very good physically and my neck has healed great. I want to sincerely thank everyone who has thought of me throughout this injury, prayed for me, and supported me. It is a powerful thing to know how many people care for you while you are going through hard times.