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Tips for ubiquitous 'athlete overcomes rare/odd injury' stories

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by Rusty Shackleford, Jul 17, 2007.

  1. Rusty Shackleford

    Rusty Shackleford Active Member

    Just thought I'd throw this out there. It already ran, but any tips/critiques will be appreciated.
    (Warning: Story is long).

    This could also be a tips/suggestions thread for tackling the ubiquitous 'athlete overcomes rare/odd injury for big return' story, if people are so inclinded. Lord knows those kinds of stories are all-too-common, so people writing them for the first time (or just wanting some pointers) may enjoy them.


    HARDIN - Cole Sibley lay in a hospital bed, on his back, his legs lifted ever so slightly off the mattress.

    He held them there, proof his situation wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

    But like the cartoon character who doesn’t fall back to Earth until he looks down and realizes there’s no ground beneath his feet, Cole Sibley had to see his legs for himself.

    And there they were, flat against the mattress, unmoved.

    Cole Sibley lay in a hospital bed, unable to move his legs after weeks of slowly losing control of them. His arms, too, were starting to grow weaker. And after multiple tests and different, incorrect diagnoses, his doctors still couldn’t tell him exactly what the problem was.

    -A 1-IN-100,000 CASE-

    It started as a head cold. Who cares, right? A few tissues, maybe some Sudafed, and life goes on. Baseball season was starting and Cole Sibley didn’t have time to deal with a head cold.

    It was early March 2006. Sibley was a junior on the Calhoun High School baseball team, and the Warriors were good. Good enough, in fact, that by the end of the season, they were 23-9 and had earned a No. 2 seed in their sectional.

    Sibley was supposed to play a key part in that success. He was, in the words of Calhoun coach Casey Longnecker, “(O)ur top hitter and our No. 2 pitcher at the time.”

    Sibley was a 6-foot, 2-inch, 194-pounder with baseball in his blood. He’d been playing, and playing well, since tee-ball. A strong junior season to follow up what was a fantastic sophomore campaign would give him the opportunity to earn a college baseball scholarship from one of several interested schools.

    But from the beginning of his junior season, things weren’t quite right with Sibley. He had developed that annoying cold early in the team’s practice schedule.

    “They’re out there practicing, running, and it’s raining and cold in March — it was a cold like any other kid would get,” said Sibley’s mother, Kim Bray. “So we took him to the doctor and they put him on an antibiotic and we never thought any more about it.”

    The cold went away in short order. But in its place came an odd pain in his right leg. Actually, calling it pain is being generous — it was more like an uncomfortable weakness. It was as if Cole had awakened one morning to discover that he had run a one-legged super-marathon in his sleep, leaving it with no strength.

    “It was kind of numb, weak,” Sibley said. “It felt like the circulation was cut off to my leg. I couldn’t move it real well.”

    At first it was assumed to be some kind of hamstring injury. After all, athletes commonly get hamstring injuries, and it was an easy over-the-counter diagnosis to make. Soon, though, the weakness had spread to both legs and was getting worse.

    “We were wrapping his legs. We were doing everything we could to keep him out there on the field,” Bray said of the hamstring treatments Sibley underwent.

    But the hamstring treatments were doing no good, and Sibley’s legs didn’t actually hurt the way hamstring injuries typically do — his legs simply weren’t working the way they were supposed to work.

    Away from his mother’s concerned eye, Sibley’s leg problems were growing — from a curious and annoying leg weakness to an increasingly dangerous condition.

    “He had been falling at school,” Bray said. “He didn’t say too much about it, but his friends had come down and they were telling me that he had been falling frequently at school. And at practice one night, he had fallen like four times, and he couldn’t get himself back up — the team had to help him get back up.”

    Days and weeks passed, and the strange leg symptoms persisted. Finally, on April 7, Sibley couldn’t take it anymore. Batting in a game against Marquette Catholic, he had to remove himself because his legs could no longer support him.

    “I took off running to first (on a hit), and I just got so tired by the time I got to first base,” Sibley said. “It was just a weakness, and I didn’t feel like I could go on anymore.”

    The following Monday, Sibley visited a doctor who prescribed physical therapy for his weakened legs — still assumed to be some kind of hamstring problem. After two weeks of physical therapy, though, his legs didn’t seem to be any better.

    “I would go to physical therapy with him and I’d be like, ‘Guys, he’s getting worse. Something’s not right,’” Bray said. “The physical therapist was like, ‘You’ve got to be patient. These pulled hamstrings take awhile.’”

    At the end of two weeks, though, Sibley’s legs were in worse shape than when he started. His body weight had dropped nearly 40 pounds below normal – weight missing almost entirely from his legs – and at the end of an evaluation test, Sibley couldn’t lift his leg upon leaving an exercise bike.

    At that point, his physical therapist called the doctor and had blood work ordered.

    The results of the blood work were unimaginable.

    “The blood work showed that his (leg) muscles were breaking down,” Bray said. “It led us to believe he had muscular dystrophy.”

    Sibley was put in a hospital for further tests. Spinal taps, MRIs and EKGs all were conducted to try to further explain what was going on inside his legs.

    In the meantime, Sibley had lost the ability to move his legs at all. Lying in bed, he could feel them moving at his command, only to look at them and realize they were stationary. Plus, his arms were beginning to show some of the same early warning signs — weakness, numbness — that his legs had shown weeks earlier.

    The situation was growing increasingly serious.

    “That was the scariest part — not being able to move my legs,” Sibley said. “I was trying to lift them as hard as I could, and they wouldn’t move. It was scary.”

    Sibley’s troubles were also taking an emotional toll on his mother.

    “There’s nothing you can say that describes what you go through as a parent when something like this happens to your child,” Bray said. “There’s nothing you can do. You just sit there with him. It’s very frightening.”

    By early May, nearly two months after the onset of Sibley’s symptoms, one of the test results came back and pointed the doctors in an interesting, and rare, direction.

    “(The doctors) had put an electric current into his muscles, an EEG (electroencephalography), and the nerves were having a delayed reaction, so that’s when they knew the problem was in the nerve and not the muscles themselves,” Bray said.

    The nerve issue was the key. The doctors, as well as Cole Sibley and his mom, finally knew exactly what they were dealing with.

    “They told us he had Guillain-Barre Syndrome,” Bray said. “If you get online and look it up, it’ll scare the hell out of you.”

    Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a mutation of the body’s white blood cells that turn them against the nerves in the muscles of the body’s extremities. According to the Web site of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, it is unclear what causes the disease, although colds are known to commonly precede the disorder. Roughly 1-in-100,000 people develop the potentially fatal ailment.

    With the cause of Sibley’s problems now known, his doctors were able to begin a regimen of treatment. He was given two treatments of intravenous immunoglobulin, whereby healthy antibodies from donors block the damaging antibodies, and sent home to recover.

    Almost immediately, Sibley started to see small strength gains.

    “Before we even left the hospital he could move his leg like, an inch,” Bray said. “When we saw a little bit of movement in the bed, we were just like, ‘Oh my God, there was movement. I saw it.’ ..… When you have nothing, any little thing is awesome to see.

    “And it might be two weeks, but then you’d see some other little thing. Maybe he could get up not quite as awkwardly. Or he would walk without such a horrible gait.”

    Sibley’s treatment did not require any physical therapy. Doctors simply told him to work himself as much as his body would let him – that time would bring about improvement. The idea was that Sibley’s body would produce new, healthy white blood cells and the old, Guillain-Barre Syndrome-infected white blood cells would die off.

    Sibley missed the final two-thirds of his junior baseball season and most of the final two months of school that year (his grades never slipped). But by the following fall, Sibley was attending school full-time – without falling.

    And by this past spring, despite a lingering lack of stamina, Sibley was healthy enough to take the mound for the Calhoun baseball team in its season opener – a 12-2 home victory over North Greene in which he pitched four innings, allowing one earned run.

    “It was amazing to be on that mound that day,” Sibley said. “I had been scared that I wouldn’t be able to play ball, and to get out there – it was just amazing.”
    His mother felt the same way.

    “I was sobbing to see my kid back on the pitcher’s mound after what he had been through,” Bray said. “The whole hillside – there were other mothers crying.

    “It was just such an emotional moment. The kids had shirts made that said ‘Cole’s Crew’ with his baseball number. They were doing the wave up on the hill for him. The support was just awesome. Other parents were coming up to me and saying how great it was to see him back out there.”

    As the season progressed, Sibley’s health improved and with it came on-field success. He finished the season with a team-best .389 batting average, a team-best 33 RBIs and three home runs. From the mound he was 10-4 with a 2.10 ERA and 54 strikeouts. He was named First-Team All-Western Illinois Valley Conference and was a member of The Telegraph’s small-school All-Area baseball team.

    Sibley will be attending Maryville University in St. Louis beginning this fall to study physical therapy and he hopes to play for the school’s baseball team.

    “To go from being in the hospital and being in the shape he was in to coming back and having the season he had shows how much hard work he did,” said Longnecker, the Warriors’ coach.

    More impressive to those closest to Sibley was his attitude throughout the ordeal.

    “That whole time, he never got down on himself, the smile never left his face, he never asked ‘Why me?’” Bray said. “Even when he was at his worst, when we had just brought him home from the hospital, I asked him what he was feeling and he looked at me and he said, ‘Mom, if I don’t get any worse, I’m going to be OK. I can live like this.’

    “Here all I’m thinking is my son’s going to be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, all his hopes and dreams gone, and here he’s consoling me, telling me he’s going to be OK.”

    That’s just part of Sibley’s nature.

    “I never let it get me down,” he said. “I just tried to stay above it. I’m a very optimistic person.

    “It’s probably wrong that I think this way, but just focusing on the good almost seems to help you get better. Scientifically, I don’t know if it does or not. But in my mind it helped.”

    So much for looking down and not seeing the ground below – for Sibley, things are certainly looking up.
  2. YoungGun7

    YoungGun7 New Member

    This may not seem like a lot coming from me, I've had some things torn apart on here.

    I thought it was really good. I thought you explained everything well and painted a good picture. I hope to produce work like this one day.
  3. Rusty Shackleford

    Rusty Shackleford Active Member

    Thanks, appreciate it.

    Personally, I wish I could have found a way to work a quote from the kid higher into the story. His first quote isn't until way down. And a physical description would have been nice, but that was impossible because I never actually met him -- conflicting schedules made this an entirely phone-driven story.
  4. MCbamr

    MCbamr Member

    I would have to say it's well done because my first thought is not about some weakness in your product but this: how the heck can a high school athlete be falling down for weeks before somebody decides he needs to go to the doctor? How is that possible?
    O,K., that out of the way, I'm curious if you are in a different town. It seems interviewing him face to face would be mandatory for a story like this. Seems like conflicting schedules wouldn't be possible unless you are not a full-time writer. What am I missing?
  5. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Rusty -

    Thanks for sharing your work with us.

    I waited a couple of days to weigh in on this. I was curious to see the response.

    I think it's an absolutely sound piece in most regards. Mechanically, structurally and architecturally it's fine. Straight-up, straight-ahead retelling of what befell this kid. Two thoughts this morning that I hope result in some discussion:

    - The lede was a little confusing to me as written. The distinction between what he imagines and what he actually sees in those moments when he tries to move his legs needs, I think, to be more pointed. Not more dramatic, but more clearly focused. I didn't really understand it until later in the piece, when the phenomenon is more completely explained.

    - Part of the reason for this leads me to my second point. The lede, to me, lacked the writerly detail necessary to make that scene work as a scene. In fact, my only serious criticism of the whole story is exactly that - it lacks the detail necessary to make the piece resonate.

    When you mentioned in a later post that this was a story done by telephone, it became clear to me why the detail wasn't there.

    While you certainly made the absolute best of the story under such circumstances, my only complaint as a too-close reader of narrative non-fiction - and it's fantastically imprecise, so feel free to disregard it - is that the piece feels generic, and a little sterile, because it lacks specificity.

    I guess what I'm hoping to discuss here, if folks choose to do so, is

    1) the necessity of certain kinds of detail in long-form storytelling, and

    2) how to generate, and include, some of that detail, even if you're writing at a distance.

    If workshoppers want to chip in on these ideas, please do.

    Again, Rusty, thanks for posting.
  6. Rusty Shackleford

    Rusty Shackleford Active Member

    I agree on the lacking of detail. But I was unable to ever meet with the kid, which I think drastically limited the detail I could get. I asked him to go into detail whenever possible, but as you said, it feels a little sterile, like this could just be a generic story about anybody with this disease, except it's sports since he plays baseball.

    If I'd had more time, I would have liked to have met with the kid, because I could have added a physical description of him, plus, I'm sure, gotten more detail from him. Plus, it would have been nice to talk to his doctor/physical therapist for their take.

    I think those kinds of details could have greatly improved it.
  7. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Rusty -

    If you're still around, how much time did you have to work on the story, start to finish?
  8. Rusty Shackleford

    Rusty Shackleford Active Member

    About five days.
  9. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    My hat's off to you, sir. Takes me five days to clear my throat.

    On the question of physical detail in the story, was there ever a point at which you asked the kid (or the mother) to describe his surroundings when he was bedridden? Or is that not kosher?

    Sort of an interesting meeting of the mechanical and the ethical in terms of story writing.
  10. Rusty Shackleford

    Rusty Shackleford Active Member

    I never really asked them to describe the room in great detail. It might have been a good idea, but it may have led to a not-quite-entirely-accurate description. I mean, he was in the hospital a year ago, so his description may not have been entirely accurate, faded by time. I usually hesitate to ask people to describe stuff for me -- I'd rather see it myself and describe it myself, or try to write around it because I don't feel it's entirely truthful to describe things I've never seen.
  11. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest


    Which is why I think it becomes an ethical question as much as a mechanical one. Do I, writer, trust a secondhand description enough to include it?

    I think the only answers are case-by-case. If the boy says his sheets were blue, and the mother says they were green, what do you do?

    Your safety position I suppose, at least rhetorically, on uncertain detail, would be to frame things as "What Cole remembers of that room is _____." Then you're assigning responsibility to the subject in the same way we assign responsibility to eyewitnesses at news events.

    To assert though "That the room was dark and poorly decorated," as if an observation you'd made yourself would be unethical.
  12. Rusty Shackleford

    Rusty Shackleford Active Member

    That's exactly right. And since he was in the hospital a year ago, I think including any detail about his hospital room is off base, since I wasn't there. Even if he could show me pictures, they may have been dark pictures (poor lighting) or something that would have led me, again, to a not-entirely-accurate description.

    But if I had met him, I could have at least provided a description of him, and how he walks now, and things of that nature. His bright eyes, his bubbly personality, whatever.
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