A major injury is a miserable disruption in anyone's life and often worsens mental health in addition to physical. For professional athletes whose physical abilities are essential to both their passion and their livelihood, the emotional impact can be even more severe.
When AFLW player Erika O'Shea was laying in the hospital for three days, not allowed to move except to go to the bathroom to ensure that blood drained from an eye she then had no vision in, what worried her most was if she'd be able to play again.
"I was crying so much because I couldn't think of anything worse- What team is going to want a one-eyed player?"
Thankfully, though not yet medically cleared, she is now on the road to recovery. She has since spoken out about the importance of openness around mental health:
"It's okay not to be okay. I wouldn't be the one to say I'm struggling but I learned if I am not in a good place it's okay to say it, there are people to help you."
She's also spoken of her own realisation that she needs to take injuries seriously. Like so many athletes, when she's in the game, that's all she's focused on:
"If [the club] didn't take me off the pitch that day, I would have done permanent damage and lost vision. They put me first. If it was my way I would've played on...it made me realise I need to cop on if I'm not okay."
Athletes should indeed prioritise their own health, but given the almost single-minded attitude required to succeed in elite sport, O'Shea's story illustrates the vital need for coaches and physios to draw a firm line and remove injured players from the field, whether they say they're capable of playing or not; if they had not made that call last month, O'Shea would be blind.
O'Shea was injured playing for the North Melbourne Kangaroos in a match against Richmond at the end of October. It was the 20-year-old Cork footballer's first season in the AFLW and, so far, it was going swimmingly; the 2021 All-star played in all 10 rounds prior to her injury.
No one saw the collision clearly; O'Shea was chasing back in defence and then she was on the ground.
"I'm not even sure what happened," said O'Shea, "I ran back towards goal because there was a girl just after marking the ball but she dropped it, so I was trying to get back and stop the goal. Either her elbow or the ball, but I think it was her elbow, just smacked me straight in the eye.
"I didn't know where I was for the first 10, 20 seconds. I couldn't see out of my left eye, I thought it was just swollen. The physios ran on, I kept saying to them 'I'm fine, I just got hit in the face, I can't see out of my eye but I'm fine, just give me two seconds.' They dragged me off the pitch and I was laughing, calling them dramatic."
O'Shea was rushed to the hospital after the doctor on site saw her iris filling up with blood. There she was diagnosed with extreme hyphema, a pooling of blood inside her eye that completely blocked her vision.
It was at this point that she was ordered to lie on her back for three days straight so that the blood could drain out of her eye. The blood drained and soon O'Shea was told she didn't have to rest, but it was only after more than a week that blurry vision started to return.
Thankfully, O'Shea now has full vision, but she's not fully cleared yet. The pressure in her eye was once again high last week and complications are still a risk.
The people around her have been key in helping O'Shea recover physically and mentally. Not wanting her family to worry, she had originally kept the severity of her injury from them.
"I rang my sister because I was really struggling, thinking my sports career was over. I was avoiding her calls because I didn't want her to worry but I didn't want to lie to her on the phone... I broke down to her and told her what happened. Straight away she booked a flight that night. She never told me. My mam came out with her but didn't realize how bad it was, she thought I could see and I told my sister to keep it that way. My mam said when she saw me I was the most broken little girl, I wasn't coping at all."
O'Shea also spoke of the support she received from other Irish players in Australia:
"The days are long, you're not doing what you normally do and what you came to Australia to do. Why am I in Australia if I can't do anything? I was talking to the Irish girls out here and telling them I know why people don't come over so young... [They] were so good to me here, like Clara Fitzpatrick and Grace Kelly, they all called to me, brought sweets and small things."
Despite everything she's gone through, like so many athletes, O'Shea is relentlessly positive and determined to return to play.
"This won't stop me. I'm definitely coming back next year, I've signed two years. I didn't expect to play as much as I did and was really happy with how the season went... I am stronger, I'm grateful for the experience."