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One student’s long journey back from Tommy John surgery

Jake D’Ull looks in to get the sign from the catcher. Photo courtesy of Jake D’Ull.

Three pitches away from completing his unscheduled relief inning, the pain in his elbow was becoming more and more defined. The catcher’s glove popped with the next two pitches that went by. The third was a slider that got the strikeout and ended the inning, but his elbow, not the glove, made the popping sound.

Granada Hills Charter junior Jake D’Ull, walked back to the Highlander’s dugout under the lights at East Los Angeles College’s baseball stadium on Oct. 9, 2016, not thinking much of the pain in his elbow, and even joked with a teammate that he may need the infamous Tommy John Surgery — a pitcher’s worst nightmare. We should remind ourselves to be careful what we wish for.

At first speculation, it was just elbow pain — an inconvenience that many baseball players deal with from time to time. But after trying to be business as usual the next day at practice, it was clear there was something seriously wrong.

“I tried to throw and it was hurting and then I tried to hit and it was still hurting and after that, I took a week off,” D’Ull said.

Going to the doctor the next week, D’Ull was originally misdiagnosed. He was told that he had Cubital Tunnel Syndrome, an injury involving pressure and stretching the ulnar nerve in the elbow, according to the American Society for Surgery on the Hand.

It took another month of going in and out of doctors’ offices before finding out in the results of an injected MRI done by a second doctor that there was indeed a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) due to wear and tear from playing. In baseball terms, a result like this means having Tommy John, or ulnar collateral ligament reconstructive surgery.

D’Ull was given three options: quit baseball, rehab but never pitch again, or surgically repair the UCL to be able to pitch. On the field, having surgery meant he would not see or throw a pitch for between eight to 12 months, as well as not having full range of motion in his arm for a couple of months following the surgery.

Because it only affected baseball motions, not having the surgery would allow for a normal life off the field and with rehab, he would be back playing in a few months, but as a position player rather than a pitcher. With his heart set on making a return to the bump, D’Ull opted to have the surgery and go through the lengthy process of getting back to 100 percent.

“I chose the surgery to be able to pitch. It was for all the hard work it took to get where I was all the hours of extra practice and time spent playing. The way you feel when you play isn’t a feeling you get anywhere else,” D’Ull said.

For the next month leading up to the surgery, it was difficult — as it would be for anyone as emotionally and physically invested into anything to be sidelined for year, let alone a 16-year-old. In addition to the inevitable feelings associated with a looming operation, finals were also fast approaching.

With honors and Advanced Placement classes, as well as being in arguably the most academically important year for college, it is stressful even without a major injury. Prior to the surgery, D’Ull could function normally during class, physically that is.

“At first I was in denial and then I was pretty confused about what to do with my life because my life is so connected to the team. I accepted it eventually and know that everything happens for a reason. Grades were first still, but it was a balancing act of trying to keep up with the injury [mentally]. I could do anything else besides throw and hit a baseball. I could literally lift a 100-pound box and it was frustrating that I could do everything besides play baseball,” D’Ull said.

On Dec. 12, just two days before his 17th birthday and the first day of finals, D’Ull had the Tommy John, in a three and a half hour operation that went two hours longer than it was supposed to. In UCL reconstruction surgery, one’s palmaris tendon, which goes from the wrist to the elbow, is taken and wrapped around the elbow after the UCL is taken out and holes are drilled in the bone. In most cases with this surgery, the palmaris tendon is wrapped around once.

Oddly enough, his tendon was so long that doctors were able to wrap it around the elbow three times. In fact, it was odd enough that a camera crew was brought in during the surgery to film it for medical teaching purposes.

Because he missed all of finals week due to recovering from the surgery, D’Ull took his finals the first week back from winter break, four weeks after Tommy John. And despite all the turmoil and mental battles he had to fight the last quarter of the semester, D’Ull ended with straight A’s and an impressive 4.4 grade point average.

Coming back to school post-surgery was not easy, though. There was a brace on his right arm and he was not able to move it well, or feel it well for that matter.

“I had to figure out how to write without the feeling of writing in my hand,” D’Ull said.

Going to physical therapy two to three times a week, he had to first regain the ability to even move his arm normally, now working to strengthen his arm. After four months of that, the doctor will clear him to be able to throw, thus beginning the grueling six to eight month rehab process to work from the ground up to be able to throw well again.

D’Ull looks on during a game. Photo courtesy of Jake D’Ull.

For the time being, D’Ull has taken a seat on the varsity team’s bench. Missing what would be his second year on varsity, there is not a doubt that his presence on the mound will be missed.

“[He] was going to play a significant role this year on the mound, it’s made other guys have to step up, but we look forward to having him back next year,” Coach Ismar Ardon said.

The Highlanders will be shuffling players around all season to be able to accommodate having one less reliable arm. With a pitching staff being made up of mostly juniors with the exception of seniors Gerardo Ramirez and Daniel Tobias, the Highlanders will come back an experienced rotation in 2018. D’Ull will be one of the longest standing varsity pitchers in the rotation, upon his return, and help lead the team in the ultra competitive West Valley League.

D’Ull has every intention of coming back better than he was before the surgery. He is aiming to be able to pitch an inning here or there throughout the summer, but says he will be 100 percent healthy before the start of his senior season in 2018. He also plans to play collegiately, and although he will not be playing this year, having Tommy John will not prevent D’Ull from continuing toward his goal.

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