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Recovery Journey: Kelsey Ruffing

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Kelsey Ruffing is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counsellor and former soccer player from Chicago, USA.

Kelsey Ruffing

Kelsey's own experience of injury, detailed below, led to her passions for counselling and psychology services. In particular, she saw a great need for services that were specifically tailored towards helping individuals with chronic health conditions, as well as athletes dealing with sport injury, to thrive despite their physical circumstances.

Alongside her work with Kelsey Ruffing Counselling, she also serves as is an adjunct professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, on the Wellness Education Committee and as an transition coach for Athletes Soul, and on the advisory board for Sidelined USA.

In the piece below Kelsey shares details of her incredibly tough recovery experience, with multiple re-injuries along the way, and how the reflections from this journey led to the amazing work she does to support others dealing with those challenges today.

How I Learned About ACL Injuries

Mia Hamm, the great number 9, was my idol growing up. I had her book, had her jersey, I was even able to see her play before she retired from the Women’s US Soccer Team. Soccer was my first love and my passion. I was a striker, although I had played goalie for a few years early on. Scoring goals and making assists, I loved it. My dad used to stand by the net and cheer me on. I can still hear him cheering for me.

I remember sitting at lunch in ninth grade hearing a friend discuss a girl on her team who had torn her ACL that weekend playing soccer. I remember thinking to myself, “what the heck is an ACL??”, and I also remember making the stupid comment that I had never been hurt before….should have knocked on wood.

That following week I was playing with my travel soccer team, 14 years old (about to be 15). It was October 30th. I was running down a ball and so was the defender. We kicked the ball at the exact same time, and I heard a loud "POP". I went down and was crying, something I never did on the field. My mother says I turned white as a ghost and she knew something was wrong. I came off the field, shook it off, did a lap, and returned to the field thinking “I guess everything is fine”. I kept playing, although my knee would give out on me two more times before the end of the game.

That night I remember there was a Halloween party I went to and I wore jeans. By the time I got home my knee swelled in my jeans and I could barely get them off. The next morning I woke up to a knee the size of a basketball. Scared, I actually army crawled my way to my parents’ room where my mom quickly called the doctor. Turns out, I'd torn the ACL in my right knee during that game. I was confused, afraid and also naïve. I had no idea what was to lay ahead of me as far as recovery and surgery. I remember being asked if I wanted to use my own patellar tendon or if I wanted a cadaver. I wanted something brand new (which sounds odd), so I chose the cadaver. My surgeon, luckily, was at Temple Sports Medicine and had been the doctor for some of the professional teams in Philadelphia. I trusted him, and he was very reassuring.

ACL Surgery & Physical Therapy

After surgery, I came to learn that he did not have to replace my ACL and it had actually began to repair itself. He stated he cleaned out the area and made a repair. I was also made aware that I had received a blood transfusion during surgery due to blood loss. When I had woken up from surgery I had various panic attacks because I could not breathe (I've come to find out later as an adult in my late twenties, this was because the anaesthesia wore off before the muscle relaxer did!).

I went to physical therapy and was actually back up and playing in 4 month’s time. A bit of a miracle. During the time of surgery and recovery, I was motivated to get back on the field. I had my eye on the prize, always, and felt determined to make a comeback. This was the beginning of a long few years.

At this time I was looking to play for my high school team. I was a serious player with high hopes and a good amount of confidence. I had missed most of my freshman season, but was attending practices and games, trying to show that I wanted this and was serious to my high school coach. When sophomore year rolled around, I tried out for the high school basketball team in the winter, before the soccer season began in the spring.

My mom dropped me off at tryouts and we began warming up. The first play of the first drill, I went up for a layup and time stopped. It felt like slow motion. I felt someone just lightly graze the back of my left leg and then heard a loud tearing noise and felt myself fall to the ground. It was like tunnel vision, that is all I heard, and I saw the look of horror on the faces of guys playing ball on the next court. I screamed out in pain, holding my “good knee”, yelling “not again, not again”. A soccer teammate, who was also trying out for basketball and had torn her ACL the previous year, rushed over to me. She knew just as well as I did that this was devastating, and I had torn my ACL again, this time in the left leg.

ACL Re-Injury

Kelsey Ruffing Injury Recovery Coach

I remember the coach calling my mom and telling her to turn around and come back. I remember her face when she walked into the gym, it looked sad for me. She tried to be reassuring and stated maybe it wasn’t the ACL this time. I think we both knew the truth. An MRI revealed that it was a complete tear of the ACL and we went to visit my surgeon at Temple again. He tried to be light about it, he knew I was beside myself. This time the cadaver was necessary, and the recovery was about 8-9 months.

I still kept a determined mind and was highly motivated to overcome this obstacle. I stayed close to my high school soccer team, although there was not much of a season there for me again. I developed a mantra “pain is temporary, pride is forever” and put it everywhere. I lived by this and it kept me motivated. We looked into a sports training facility in order to build my muscles and strength to prevent further injury. I joined a place and went three times a week to workouts. I ended up putting on 15lbs of muscle in two months for the start of the soccer season and my junior year. That season was the best season of soccer I had ever played. Redemption was finally here, and I led the team that year in goals, second in assists. I felt unstoppable, although I wore a very big hard brace on my left leg to try to prevent re-injury. I had gained the nickname “the robotic leg”, among others that reflected the device on my leg somehow making me more of a machine than human.

When our season came to an end, we played in one last tournament, just for fun. It was May and I was 17 at this time. I remember it was my half birthday. The first game began, and the whistle blew. One minute into the game, I was passed the ball and apparently it was a flat ball. I stepped on the ball and sank into it. I felt my right leg snap, I fell to the ground and cried harder than I ever have. I was afraid to look because I thought my knee cap had moved around to the back of my leg. I actually heard a teammate say, “Oh my god, I think her leg snapped in half” (reassuring...). Again, fear rushed in for the third time and I knew this time, even more so than the others, something was very, very wrong. The athletic trainer came out on the field and did the knee check. She stated she did not believe I tore my ACL (I told her she didn’t know what she was talking about in my head).

I can’t remember if I was carried, carted off, or if I walked off the field, but that would be the last game I ever played. I tried calling my mother to let her know she needed to come pick me up (we were two hours away), but when I tried to tell her what happened I choked up and could not talk. I hung up the phone. She called back and when she asked if I was okay, I told her she had to come get me right away. She and my dad picked me up and drove me to the ER closer to home. What I remember the most from that drive was the silence. We all knew.

The Mental Side of ACL Recovery

My third ACL surgery took place in June. The two other times had been so different. I had hope, I felt determined and motivated. This time I felt angry, resentful, sad and so many other things. I had just started reaching out to college coaches for the senior season. I felt my dreams slip away and a shift in my own identity. What I didn’t realize then, were the symptoms of depression. The surgery revealed a complete ACL tear and damage to the meniscus. They had feared that more ligaments were torn, however, I lucked out there. This recovery took me 9-10 months.

When I arrived home from the hospital, my mother went to pick up my pain killers. I took the medication and shortly after asked her to take me to the bathroom down the hall. I can remember standing in the bathroom, coming out, with my mom waiting outside the door to help me back to my bedroom. I remember hearing her scream for my father, him running down the hall, losing my hearing, then everything going black. When I woke up, I was in my bed and only minutes had gone by. It turns out the pharmacy filled my pain killer prescription with a diuretic instead of the right medication. Talk about a bump in the road.

When tryouts came for my senior year season I had been physically cleared to play. I packed up my soccer bag and put it in my car. I drove to school and by the end of the day, just as tryouts were to begin, I walked to my car, got in, and drove away. I knew I was not prepared mentally for the task, and I knew my heart felt differently about the game now. I remember having no idea what to do with myself after that. I tried to reflect on other things I was good at or enjoyed doing. I really enjoyed writing and journalism and planned to be a communications major entering college. I decided on East Carolina University in Greenville, NC because of their communications program. I knew that I still wanted sport to be a part of my life, which is why I had a new dream of becoming a sports broadcaster on ESPN, like Pam Oliver.

I knew I felt a great amount of empathy for injured athletes and I had always felt like I needed to help them in some way. During an undergrad internship at an AA affiliate to The New York Yankees in Trenton, NJ, I saw what looked to be a very important man talking with the players during a game. I asked who this man was, and it turned out he was the sport psychologist. I introduced myself to him and asked about how he got to where he was today. Needless to say, I went back to school that fall and changed my major to psychology with a minor in sport studies. East Carolina also offered a sport psychology class, which at that time was new considering the field itself was just budding. From that point on I had a new passion. The fire was ignited once again, and I made it my mission to have a career helping athletes overcome mental and physical obstacles.

Reflecting On My ACL Recovery Journey

Athlete Profile Kelsey Ruffing

I don’t think I truly realised the severity of my injuries and the physical and mental toll they took until I was much older. What I do know is that I carried these injuries with me. The complete muscle loss, the fluid, the rehab and the pain, it all became normalised. I can remember my mother washing my hair because I was not allowed to shower, and the machine that would bend my leg for me after surgery. I was in this machine 3x a day for hours at a time. I did the math and I was on crutches for about two whole years of my life. People knew me for my injuries, not my ability. After each surgery I had to learn how to walk again. I started taking arthritis pills when I was 16 (that didn’t last long at 3 pills a day).

When you are that young you don’t realise things like health insurance, medical bills, and how injury can impact a family. My brother and sister had gone off to college and were out of the house by the time these injuries occurred. My mom worked as a teacher’s aide at an elementary school and my father, a general manager at a car dealership. I can’t imagine the worry, anxiety, fear and stress my parents had to go through each time I was injured. My poor mother drove me to physical therapy three times a week, 45 minutes away, for months and months. They saw me struggle and I know they hid their own emotions from me during those times. It took a lot of time, energy, and money from them, but they didn’t show it.

All in all, these injuries are the reason I am in this career today, passionately helping individuals overcome their greatest obstacles. I have much gratitude for my injuries and the processes I had to go through. They taught me resiliency, grit, and adaptability. They allowed me to spend more time with my dad listening to Billy Joel in the car, since he drove me to school during those years on crutches. They gave me something to feel passionate about and work towards. They helped me to grow in ways I can’t even describe.

When we are faced with adversity, we can either let it consume us or we can use it as fuel to thrive - "The comeback is always greater than the setback".

Thank you so much Kelsey for sharing this powerful story and for how you've used your own difficult experience to help provide amazing supports to others today! If you'd like to avail of any of the counselling services offered by Kelsey you can contact her through her website.

Want to catchup on all the great injury recovery stories and expert insights on rehabilitation we shared in 2022? Click here to read the Brace Blog 2022 Year in Review: Injury Recovery Stories & Advice!

Download the free Brace Injury Rehabilitation Mobile App today from our Home Page to empower your recovery journey!

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