Even athletes get the blues
When Resort Sports Network co-host Todd Offenbacher, 38, suffered a knee injury that sent him into surgery one month after jumping off rocks skiing at Kirkwood Mountain Resort, the experience changed his outlook on the world.
Beyond dealing with the knee, the ever-smiling, enthusiastic Offenbacher also suffered from a serious bout with a situational depression for three weeks.
“I thought, ‘What’s going on? I’m a super positive person,’ ” he said. “I was totally shocked. There’s no way someone could have prepared me for this.”
Experts on both sides of the health aisle have found that athletes can be especially susceptible to depression because they grieve the loss of identity.
“They definitely do. The more developed in sports they are, the more they’re tied to their identity. It affects them quite a bit. You can sense it with a lot of them. It is a loss for them to have something like their identity taken away,” Offenbacher’s South Lake Tahoe orthopedic surgeon Terry Orr said.
“There’s always this struggle with, ‘what can I do and what I can’t do.’ And ‘if I stop, will I be able to get into (the sport) again,’ ” local Marriage and Family Therapist Ann Swallow said.
Swallow, who sees patients for depression, had to come to grips with the condition herself when she developed bone spurs.
Along with being withdrawn, tired and vulnerable, Offenbacher was sad friends stopped calling him, irritable with his girlfriend and empathetic to seniors and the disabled.
“It’s a reality shock. I became very aware of what disabled people go through,” he said.
Offenbacher flashed on his disabled friend that he helped climb El Capitan in Yosemite.
In the different stages of pre- and post-surgical recovery, Offenbacher hit a low when he was bedbound. Then, he couldn’t wait to shelve his crutches.
When he became a little more mobile, he didn’t even want to go back to work. “And I love my work,” said Offenbacher, a world-class climber whose body was in peak condition at the time of the accident.
“I think of being real active and how that’s a real big part of my identity. The mental is the most difficult part. It feels like you’re never going to be better again,” he said. “I did the guy thing and went into my cave.”
But it sounds like the reaction is not reserved to one gender.
When Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street suffered severe injuries from a fall she took a few years ago, the self-assured, gregarious Alpine skier essentially locked herself up in her room away from family and friends for a month, the New York Times reported.
Along the way, Offenbacher consistently trained, listened to his body and found some enlightenment and encouragement where and when he needed it most.
Emerald Bay Physical Therapist Jenny Cooper understood the root of his concerns.
“(Injuries) change your whole dimension of fear. This is a guy who can hang from a rope up El Capitan, and now he has trouble going across a flat, icy spot,” she said, adding that some people come face to face with their own mortality.
So with all the baby steps involved with healing, Cooper and Physical Therapist Chris Proctor take a hard look at their patients’ mental well-being to get them over the recovery hump. It’s as much a part of the protocol at Emerald Bay Physical Therapy as functional training, massage, cardiovascular warmups or biofeedback.
“The mental is just as important in healing. Some people who don’t make the mental-physical connection sometimes get stuck in their emotions,” Cooper said. “I feel, as a therapist, that injuries are meant to teach us things. We’re never the same afterward.”
More than 17 million Americans have depression, costing the United States $50 billion a year. Half that amount represents lost productivity, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
There are at least four known types of the condition. Major depression is the most common, characterized by at least five of the key symptoms for more than two weeks. They include depressed mood, fatigue and loss of sleep.
In some cases, a situational depression is triggered by an obvious stressful life event like the loss of a loved one, a breakup with a mate or a severe injury. In others, it seems to occur spontaneously, usually between the ages of 24 and 44. Some scientists have found a genetic link.
Many psychiatrists link their patients who suffer from major depression with a chemical imbalance in neurotransmitters that carry communications between nerve cells that control mood and other basic body functions. They include serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Depression can occur in up to 20 percent of those who have had a heart attack and 27 percent in stroke survivors, the National Institute of Mental Health reports.
Professional lightweight boxer Juan Torres of South Lake Tahoe knows all too well the effects of stroke on mental outlook.
Torres, 32, suffered two strokes last summer. In the worst of it, he felt dizzy, his vision was blurry and the left side of his body went numb. Consequently, an MRI showed a blood clot in the brain.
“If I would have stepped in the ring, I would have died with one blow,” he said.
His troubles didn’t end with his diagnosis.
Between August and October, he was laid up and found difficulty in simple chores.
“I knew (my career) was over. I had to think of my family,” he said. “I was real emotional, almost suicidal. I’d say, ‘Why me? I’m a healthy man.’ I was just mad about the whole thing.”
To survive, Torres said he was forced to find peace with himself. He underwent a bargaining process in which he set a goal to someday trade boxing for coaching.
He found inspiration from many sources. His dependency on his wife Lydia strengthened their relationship, friends offered support and workouts at Emerald Bay Physical Therapy with Proctor to rebuild his strength help him mentally and physically.
“When a young person (like Torres) has a stroke, the expectation level is so high,” Proctor said. “You take an athlete who’s used to doing everything he wants (to do). It’s tough rehabilitation.”
Working with Torres brought Proctor back to his own personal memories of his father’s stroke at age 44.
Proctor works a balancing act with athletes like Torres in which he allows them to get the fulfillment they need in the workout without overdoing it, while recognizing the small steps made in recovery.
“It’s important to tell them all along that it’s OK. Our job is to keep them positive – to make them understand they’re really lucky. Any unrealistic goals have to be squashed,” he said.
At the same time, the physical therapist maintains his own concerns.
“The scary part is when you don’t know the cause. When you don’t know the cause, the chance of it happening again is still there,” said Proctor, who takes Torres’ vitals at the beginning of their sessions.
Torres has come a long way since the strokes, approaching Proctor’s creative exercises with due diligence and passion.
“I’m really proud of him. In so many ways, this could have gone wrong,” he said, attributing much of Torres’ successful comeback to his family’s support and his desire to overcome adversity. “There’s definitely a connection between physical performance and mental outlook.”
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.