By Ryan Divish
Let's play word association for a moment. Name the first thought that comes to your mind when you read the words "major hip surgery."
So what is your first thought? Maybe it's a little old lady named Harriet pushing a walker, or her aging husband named Harold limping on a leg worn down by years of work and use.
Perhaps it is a professional athlete named Bo. And the type of injury that only occurs when ridiculously strong athletes collide at a high rate of speed with pads, helmets and shoulder pads.
Certainly the thought of a doe-eyed 14-year-old girl with an innocent smile, sparkled with a mouthful of braces, on the cusp of her high school athletic career doesn't come to mind.
How could it? At that age, children seem invincible, with a body fit to bounce back from bike scrapes, floor burns, trips, falls and hours upon hours of running, jumping and playing; not a body broken down to a nasty limp by two hours worth of exercise.
It's not supposed to work out like this. Life isn't always fair, but this time it's being flat cruel.
Robin Patrick doesn't deserve this. She doesn't deserve any of this. She doesn't deserve the hurt, the anger or the loss of her athletic career.
Not when the good part was just about to start. The part she had been anxiously awaiting for what seemed like a hundred years. The part where she dons a Blue Sky Eagles uniform and gets out there and does what she does best - compete.
That's all that she ever wanted. It didn't matter what sport. She loves them all: volleyball, basketball, softball, track, heck, even if it was badminton, pingpong or Tiddlywinks, she'd not only be glad to play, she'd be even happier to win.
And now that it's finally here, it is being taken away. Not by her choice or anyone's, for that matter. It's also more than a cruel twist of fate.
Robin Patrick's high school athletic career could be ending as almost as quickly as it started. And it makes her sad and angry and helpless and scared. And you're right, she doesn't deserve any of it.
The pain was there. It was always there. But it wasn't in Robin's hip. It was lower. The pain was in her knee. It ached and ached after she would get done with whatever practice or game she had been playing in that day.
"Growing pains" is what doctors first diagnosed it as, something that many kids at that age deal with. You grow fast, your bones hurt from the stress and then the pain goes away. Growing pains was the same diagnosis a year later. The following year? Yep, growing pains.
It was an understandable diagnosis. After all, she was growing faster than any stalk of wheat on the Hi-Line. When you're growing fast and growing tall, there is a certain amount of pain.
The growing pains had to stop at some point. Only they didn't. They continued and they got worse.
On a whim, Robin's mom, Linda, asked for an X-ray of her daughter's hip. It was just a guess, but what could it hurt? They X-rayed every other part of her leg. Even then, nothing stood out.
So, the routine remained the same. Robin would go to practice or play in a game and afterward be reduced to a teenager with a senior citizen limp.
After watching her daughter hobble around, Linda couldn't take it any longer. This was something more than growing pains; she didn't need a doctor to tell her that.
What she needed was a specialist.
So they tried Dr. Michael Willis, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Billings.
"He just happened to look at the X-rays we had taken earlier, including the one of her hip," Linda said. "And he didn't like what he saw."
The diagnosis was that Robin was suffering from something called hip dysplasia.
Hip dysplasia is a condition in which the hip socket does not properly develop and is more shallow and upward sloping than normal. In its most severe forms, it is diagnosed in infancy. But in milder cases, the dysplasia isn't readily apparent until adolescence.
Finally a diagnosis, which meant a possible treatment. For the first time, the word "surgery" was mentioned.
"It scared me when I heard that," Robin said. "I've never even broken a bone before."
Used in the right context, that seven-letter word can make the hair on even the bravest person's neck stand. And for a parent, hearing the word surgery for their a child isn't frightening, it's paralyzing.
"It's just scary," Linda said. "You never want to see your child have to go through anything like that."
The official name is a "triple pelvic osteotomy," and Robin could be in pre-op or post-op depending on when you read this. The surgery is scheduled for today in Portland, Ore., and being performed by Dr. Adam Barmada, an orthopedic surgeon at Portland's Bone and Joint Clinic.
"It entails cutting the pelvic bone in three places and rotating the hip socket to better cover up it up by the joint," Barmada said. "Right now, the socket is not covered well and it is causing the discomfort. The surgery will give her more normal biomechanics."
Seems simple enough, but it really isn't.
"It's actually a fairly complex procedure," Barmada said. "Any time you are dealing with the hip, it is not simple. There are also other risks that come with any major surgery. You have to worry about significant blood loss. Also because there is a lot of muscle and tissue around the area, you have to worry about nerve or blood vessel injury."
The surgery should take about two to three hours. Robin will remain in Portland for follow-up examinations for up to a week.
"I'm pretty scared," Robin said just a day before the surgery. "When we were at the hospital the other day, it really kind of hit me what was going to happen. But (Dr. Barmada) was really nice and he's really positive."
The immediate effects following the surgery are typical: pain, stiffness, weakness and loss of motion. Robin won't be able to put significant weight on her leg for about three months as the bones in her pelvis heal, which means she will likely be on crutches anywhere from six to 10 weeks. Anyone who has ever used crutches, even one day, cringes at that possibility.
"It could take anywhere from six months to a year to totally regain strength in the leg," Barmada said.
While two to three months on crutches sounds miserable, it's a paradise compared with previous possibilities.
"When we first found out about the problem, they talked about having to break part of her femur and some time in a body cast," said Robin's father, Craig.
Robin will avoid both of those options, which is a main reason why Barmada was chosen.
"That was good news was that she didn't need the body cast," Linda said. "Robin was pretty relieved about that."
But these are only short-term effects. The long-range repercussions have been the most painful prospect for Robin.
When the surgery was first deemed necessary, the first thing Robin heard was that her athletic career was over.
"I cried for like a week," she said. "I thought I might be out for a year, not the rest of my life."
"It was like a piece of me died when we heard that," Linda said. "Sports mean so much to her. Most girls sleep with stuffed animals when they are little; she slept with a basketball."
Life without sports wasn't impossible to grasp, it was unthinkable. Linda tried to find rays of hope in the situation.
"I called three different doctors and kept asking, 'Well, can she do this, or will she be able to play this,' and every one of them told me, 'No,'" Linda said. "It's been hard for us to grasp that concept."
Barmada's prognosis for Robin's future isn't quite as bleak as the other three surgeons.
"I hope that she'll be able to eventually go back to what she was doing before the surgery," he said. "I won't give her any restrictions on what she can do after the bones are healed."
When he means no restrictions, that even includes running and jumping.
"Obviously, certain things like long-distance running and other motions could cause some discomfort," he said. "Only time will tell."
But even Barmada admits that being positive doesn't offer any guarantees.
"Everybody's a little different," he said. "I always try to stay on the positive side, but you can't always predict what's going to happen after the surgery or the after-effects."
One of those effects might not be felt three months after the surgery, or six months or a year. It may be felt 20 years down the road.
"There is a possibility of arthritis down the road," Barmada said. "But there are a lot of people who have arthritis later on in life. But her hip will be fine through high school and college."
Arthritis at age 65 or 70 is one thing, but arthritis at 30 isn't an option.
"You have to look at the long term," Linda said. "If she does go back and play, what will it do to her in the future?"
One of the first options that Robin had after the diagnosis was to play through the pain until the hip finally went out and a hip replacement was necessary.
That particular procedure is something that Linda wants Robin to avoid for a long time.
"We're trying to prevent a hip replacement when she's young," Linda said. "If that means giving up sports, then that's what she has to do. Like those three doctors told me, it's a lifestyle choice. And it's a choice we have to help Robin make."
She'll be the first to admit that if it up were to Robin, she would be out there competing at full speed 10 seconds after getting clearance.
"As her parents, we have to choose what is best for her in the long run," Linda said. "We want her to have this hip as long as possible because once you start having hip replacements, there is no guarantee how long they will last."
Even Robin has become somewhat resigned to the fact that her athletic career is possibly over.
"It's a hard decision to pick one or the other," she said. "Because I want to do the stuff I've been doing, but I still want to be healthy when I'm older. I guess I'll just wait and see what happens."
Days before the surgery, Robin has given off the appearance of someone who has accepted her fate and moved on.
But come on, let's be realistic. We're talking about a teenager here. Emotions can rise and fall quicker than a pop singer's popularity.
No matter how much she may tell you that she is looking toward the future, could you blame her for looking back with anger, resentment and hurt?
She was betrayed by the one thing she trusted - her body.
Nobody would blame her for crying out: "Why me!" or "This isn't fair!"
And for a time those thoughts raced through her mind every second. They don't come as frequently now. But they are there, a nagging reminder, much like the pain in her leg.
"I think about it still," she said. "At first, I didn't want to do anything. I just wanted to lie in my bed. I kept thinking, 'Why is this happening to me? Why isn't this happening to someone who doesn't like sports?'"
Those who know her best can tell when the weight of it all bears down on her. She gets quiet, the smile disappears and a faraway melancholy look replaces the look of smiling youthful innocence.
"Her teachers said she can get moody in class sometimes," Linda said. "She has been kind of withdrawn and depressed at times, especially when we found out something new because it never seemed to be good news."
Could you blame her? If you could, then you obviously don't understand how much sports has meant to her.
"Her whole life is sports," Craig said. "She loves them all. More than anything she likes to go out and compete."
When you're the youngest of four sisters, you compete for everything. It doesn't matter if it's competing with Kile in basketball, or Kim with grades, or Sadie with music or even competing with all three to use the bathroom they all share. It's always the youngest that has to compete the hardest. Instead of complaining about the competitive nature of life, she embraced it.
"I'm always trying to beat my sisters at something," Robin said. "That's what I love about sports is competing. I really don't know what I'll do without them."
It came sooner than she wanted. Robin had hoped to finish out the basketball season. But a nasty spill in practice knocked her hip partially out of socket, sending a scare into her and her family.
"I went up for a rebound and got pushed in the back and landed on it," she said. "It hurt really bad and I couldn't even walk the next day."
"I think that really kind of told her it was time to get this taken care of," Craig said.
The surgery meant the end of basketball for the season and maybe forever.
If it is the end - because if you've read this far, you know you can't count Robin out. If she treats a comeback like a competition, she'll probably win.
But what if for some reason, she can't? Her varsity basketball career for the Blue Sky/J-I Eagles might not be considered a major success in terms of numbers. She scored a total of five points in four varsity games.
Yet it was a dream come true.
Her final appearance in the Eagles Nest in Rudyard was memorable. First, her unbroken bone streak was snapped in the JV game when she broke her big toe. Still, with the prospect of her pelvis being broken in three spots in a week, something as insignificant as a toe wasn't going to stop her from playing.
And, in what might be her last varsity game, Eagles head coach Elizabeth Campbell named Robin a co-captain along with sisters Kim and Kile.
"It's always been her dream to play varsity basketball with her sisters," Craig said. "When she was in sixth grade, she told me that she wanted to make sure she was good enough to play varsity as a freshman so she could play with her sisters."
"I remember when I was little going to the games and thinking about what it would be like when I was out there playing and wearing the uniform," she said.
Campbell didn't honor her as a co-captain out of pity, but considered it an honor earned.
"As a coaching staff, we wanted to be able to do something for her," Campbell said. "Hopefully she can defy the odds and come back, but if not, being a captain is something she would have earned down the road."
But being co-captain wasn't Robin's only honor.
A brief ceremony was held before the game. The members of the Eagles boys team gave her a bouquet of flowers, Campbell read a poem titled "The Race," and her teammates presented a basketball in Eagle colors with all of their signatures.
"You are a true champion," Campbell told Robin.
For Robin, it was all too much. Tears rained down her cheeks; they were a mixture of sadness, joy and disbelief. How could she be leaving all of this?
"It was kind of unexpected," she said. "I thought they might do something, but I didn't think it would be that much. I didn't want all that attention. I really wanted it to go naturally."
Perhaps the most natural thing was playing. She scored four points, including a nifty steal and layup in the second quarter.
"I thought I played OK considering I've only been playing varsity for about two weeks," she said.
The recent playing time was also something earned, not given.
"It was totally deserved," Campbell said. "She really works her rear end off and treats every practice likes it's her last."
For Campbell and the rest of the team, Robin's journey has left a definite reminder.
"They've learned to appreciate ever moment of this," Campbell said. "That sort of thing really hits home for all of us. Things don't stay normal and can change at any moment."
While the varsity playing experience has been magical for Robin, there is still that nagging "what if" in the back of her mind.
"I finally started getting some confidence on the floor," she said. "I really started feeling like I could play with these girls and now it's ending. It's kind of depressing if you think about it."
Here's what her parents want her to think about this situation: not an ending of athletics, but a beginning of a new chapter in her life.
For now, Robin isn't giving up hope. If it takes work, so be it. If it means some pain, she can take it. If there is a ray of hope, she'll try and grab it and bask in it for as long as she can.
"All I can do is hope for the best," she said. "I'm hoping maybe I will get to play softball in the summer. It doesn't matter - anything is better than no sports at all."
But there is that possibility of a sports career ending at the ripe old age of 14.
It's something that hurts Craig and Linda as much as it hurts Robin.
"You look at her on the outside and she seems like a perfectly healthy little girl," Linda said. "But she's not. And it's frustrating because people can have arms and legs amputated and still compete, and she might not be able to.
"Sports just mean so much to her," Craig said. "But there are things she can do. She loves music. We just have to find her other interests that she can do."
Why do bad things happen to good people? It's a prevailing question asked by people every day.
Some people search for the answer in faith; others simply call it fate.
Robin is trying to find the answer in herself.
"I hope there is a chance that I can come back and play again," she said. "If not, I hope I can find something that I enjoy as much as sports. I don't know what it would be. It's tough to think that there is anything that will replace sports.
"I've gotten to the stage where I know what I have to do and I accept it. I just want to have a good attitude."
Beneath the initial appearance - the doe-eyed girl with the innocent smile and the mouthful of braces - lies a true competitor.
No matter what she thinks or believes, in the competition of life Robin Patrick has already won.