Courtesy: Portland State Athletics
PORTLAND, Ore. — On Tuesday, Sept. 18 in a Portland State volleyball practice at the new Viking Pavilion, senior Sarah Brennan went up for a tip at the net in a drill with the team’s middle blockers. Brennan, who was limited to tipping and blocking for her senior season after seriously injuring her shoulder earlier in her career, knew that she couldn’t make a full swing at the ball, and instead only gently pushed the ball over the net.
Still, it was enough. Brennan dislocated her shoulder for a second time, ending her season and her Portland State career just before the Vikings went to Montana for their first Big Sky road trip of Brennan’s senior season.
It’s an irony that is still a little too early for Brennan to find humor in, but Brennan – a future medical professional – was forced to medically retire from volleyball.
“It’s definitely a fresh wound,” Brennan said of being forced to medically retire. “I don’t think I’ll ever fully come to terms with being done playing because volleyball has been such a huge part of my life. But I have a little bit more of a sense of peace walking away from volleyball knowing what I want to do with my life moving forward. I think if I was still lost regarding what I wanted to do with my career after college, I would be a lot more scared to walk away from something that’s been such an important piece of who I am.”
Timeline of the Injury
Brennan first learned of trouble with her shoulder during the spring season of her sophomore year.
“I developed an overuse injury, an anterior and posterior labral tear in my shoulder. At the time that was all the injury was, just the labrum,” Brennan said of the initial diagnosis. “I decided to play on it during my junior season because the pain was manageable and I didn’t want to take a medical redshirt year.”
So Brennan played through the injury for her junior season – a season in which she still averaged 2.22 kills per set despite the two tears in her dominant shoulder – and then decided to have surgery right after finals of fall term.
Brennan spent five months recovering from the surgery – missing much of the Vikings’ 2018 spring season – and then just as she was returning to the court, suffered another cruel irony. Brennan dislocated her shoulder.
“It was the first day that I got cleared to swing post-op and on my second full swing, I completely dislocated my shoulder, which had to be popped back in on the spot” Brennan said.
“As a result of that, I re-tore all my surgical repairs. I re-tore the labrum, both anterior and posterior, causing more cartilage damage. I also developed an impaction fracture in my humeral head and a full-thickness capsular tear from the dislocation.”
All of this happened at the end of April earlier this year, leaving Brennan no time to go through a second surgery if she wanted to play during her senior season in the fall. Brennan, who still didn’t want to take a fifth year since that would delay her medical school plans, instead chose the risky option of playing with the injury, albeit in a limited role for the team.
“The OHSU orthopedic surgeons that work with Portland State told me I had about a 97-percent chance of re-dislocating if I continued to swing with the injury that I have. I decided to take a chance with this season, choosing not to swing, and instead just block for our team,” Brennan said. “Blocking has always been my strong suit. It’s what has gotten me on the court my whole career here. So the coaches switched me from being a pin hitter to a middle, something I’ve played before, because middles hold the biggest blocking responsibility on the court. We decided that we weren’t going to let other teams know that I wasn’t swinging. My setters knew not to set me, but nobody else knew. They just thought that I wasn’t getting set.”
The formula worked at the start of the season, as Brennan made her debut in her new role in the Vikings’ match against Fresno State on Sept. 7. Brennan won a starting spot the following week at the Colorado Classic tournament, and even led the Vikings with six blocks (two solo, four assists) in the team’s match against Indiana State on Sept. 15.
Three short days later, however, Brennan’s shoulder popped out again, officially ending her Viking career.
“Thankfully I don’t have any glaring new injuries as a result of the second dislocation. However, my pre-existing injuries are worse. My fractures are worse. My cartilage damage is worse. The tears are worse,” Brennan said.
“I had a very frank conversation with the surgeons the last time I dislocated and they said, ‘if you dislocate one more time, we’re going to call your season. This is it for you if you dislocate again.’ And I knew that was a risk coming into the season, but it was one that I was willing to take. So once I dislocated again [last month], I knew that was it for me, unfortunately, regardless of what the new damage was.”
Future off the court
Brennan’s re-injuring of her right shoulder closed her playing career, but as Brennan said, the pain was made easier by knowing that she has a bright future ahead of her away from the court. Brennan, a two-time Academic All-Big Sky selection, will be applying to medical school on June 1 next year, starting the long process of becoming a doctor.
It has been a lifelong dream of Brennan’s to become a doctor, and one that comes naturally to her considering the majority of her family have or are currently working in the medical field.
“My dad worked for Providence for 20 years, and now works for the University of Washington Medical Center. My sister, brother-in-law, uncles, grandparents, everybody has worked in the medical field in some capacity,” Brennan said.
Brennan’s paternal great grandfather was the first board-certified surgeon in the state of Idaho, and was a prominent reconstructive plastic surgeon who wrote books that Brennan still studies today. He was the last physician, however, as after him, Brennan’s grandfather worked as the CEO of Group Health, the Sisters of Providence, and Ascension Health while the rest of her family have been on the business side.
Brennan has the utmost respect for all that her family does and has done in all aspects of the medical field, but knew pretty early on in life that the business side wasn’t for her.
“I would go visit my dad in the hospital when I was young, meeting him for lunch and whatnot, and I was always like, ‘your job is so boring. Show me something cool. Let me see some blood, let me see some surgeries. Some doctors. Like, let me meet some cool people. You’re boring,'” Brennan said jokingly of her early experiences in a hospital.
“That setting is so fascinating to me, the hospital setting. That’s what exposed me to medicine initially [visiting her father], and as I grew into science and math courses, I realized that this was definitely a path I was meant to pursue. ”
It’s never been a question where Brennan was headed after Portland State, then, and the health studies: health sciences major has built a resume while at PSU that she hopes will make her an attractive candidate for medical schools when she applies next year.
Brennan has juggled three internships at various times in her collegiate career, all while still being part of the Viking volleyball team. During the summer between her sophomore and junior years, Brennan served as an intern for a functional medicine clinic in Bellevue, Wash., working as a scribe and research intern, as well as publishing her own chapter in a medical research novel. Additionally, since June, Brennan has served as an intern within the Robert W. Franz Cancer Center for Providence in Portland, and remains there now even as she juggles school, volleyball and recovering from her injury.
Brennan has also interned with the Oregon chapter of Team Impact, which Viking fans will be familiar after they paired 10-year-old Stryder Doescher with the Portland State men’s basketball team last season.
And as if that weren’t enough, Brennan still finds time to volunteer at in the Emergency Pediatric Department at Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU), the Providence Center for Medically Fragile Children, the Bridges Collaborative Care Clinic, and the Oregon Food Bank.
Brennan has even been able to observe some surgeries through her internships, something that has helped influence her to where she thinks she might choose surgery as her focus in medical school.
Closing out her Viking career
Despite all of her internships and volunteering, Brennan – perhaps a little too self-deprecatingly – claims that she doesn’t have as many clinical experiences as she would have liked before applying to medical school.
“There’s been times in my collegiate career where I’ve compared myself to other pre-med students and seen sports as a hinderance to my ability to gain clinical experiences. So many other students on my same path have six to seven hours every day that they dedicate to shadowing and volunteer hours that for me are taken up by sports,” Brennan said.
“But I think there’s definitely something to be said about pre-med students who have a passion outside of school. And somebody who can exercise those time management skills not because the want to, but because they have no other option. I have to be at practice. I have to be at weights. I’ve had to teach myself tough subjects in between flights and from hotel rooms across the country. But I also have to get A’s. So I think there’s definitely something to be said about that. It hasn’t been easy, but I think as I’m walking away from volleyball, I’m looking at my athletic career as something that’s enhanced my college experience, and something that’s going to enhance my application [to medical school], not hinder it.”
And Brennan remains part of the Vikings team even if her playing career is over. Brennan, who had the surgery to fix her shoulder last Tuesday, met with head coach Michael Seemann and the other Viking coaches after dislocating back in September, and all of them agreed without argument that Brennan would still have an active role on the team.
“The coaches didn’t really lay out a schedule for me saying, ‘this is when you have to be here. I still want you at this, this, and this.’ It just hasn’t really been a question for me. I still want to be around to support the team. Those are my best friends. I still look at our schedule at night, see that we have practice at two and I’m at practice at two. Even though I can’t put in the physical work that they’re putting in, I still want to be able to support them,” Brennan said.
If nothing else, Brennan has been a source of medical information for her teammates, even though she stresses that she does not have medical training yet.
“We’ll be in the locker room and people will ask me, ‘Doctor Sarah, look at my throat, do you think I have strep?’ And ‘Doctor Brennan, this hurts. What is this about?’ I do my best to explain what I think is going on with them but, I mean, I have no medical training. But they all look to me for stuff like that. It’s funny.”
Brennan takes her role with the team so seriously that she was reticent to ask Seemann if she could miss a practice session the afternoon before the Vikings’ match against Weber State on Oct. 11. One of the surgeons at her internship offered to have her follow him around on trauma calls during that time – a great opportunity for Brennan to gain more clinical experience ahead of medical school – but Brennan was reluctant to miss time with the team even if she wouldn’t be actively participating in practice.
“I knew it was going to interfere with practice time and of course I wanted to be at practice,” Brennan said of her dilemma. “I was so hesitant to ask Michael if I could go and watch these surgeons – it was such a unique opportunity – and he was like, ‘yeah, no questions asked. Of course, go.’ And then even in the middle of serve and pass right before the game, he came up to me when I was just sitting on the sideline and asked, ‘hey, how was it? Did you see anything cool? Does that push you more towards what you want to do?’ And that was so important to me.”
So irony comes up again for Brennan – this time not so cruelly – as the future medical professional begins her career how so many people end it. By retiring.