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Long Road Back To The High Bar
by George Kovacik
Chris Brooks saw the blood-soaked bandage and thought all his hopes and dreams were gone.
“I looked at my father’s face when they started taking it off and he was pale. When I looked for myself and saw the size of the wound, I couldn’t believe how bad it was,” he says about seeing the wound for the first time after surgery.
Brooks’ dream of becoming a gymnast started at age 5. His dad, Larry, saw potential in his son and started teaching him the basics at home.
When Chris began taking classes at age 6, he was way ahead of his peers. At age 17, in the spring of his junior year of high school, he was making a name for himself on a national level. He competed in the all-around, floor exercise, pommel horse, still rings, vault, parallel bars and high bar and was gearing up to attend the USA qualifying championships his senior year.
“I was getting close to making the jump to the senior ranks on the U.S. National Team,” Brooks says. “I really felt like it was the year I was going to push some of the senior guys for a spot on the team.”
During training in March 2004, Brooks was performing a routine release move on the high bar where the gymnast jumps from the bar to catch it again. When Brooks tried to do this, the grip he was wearing got caught and caused his right hand to lock in place while his body kept moving forward. The bones breaking in his right arm sounded like a shotgun going off in his ear.
He was taken to the emergency room at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital where they set both bones. Brooks believed he would be in a cast for four to six weeks, after which he’d be good as new. The next day he went to see Methodist orthopedic surgeon and hand and upper extremity specialist Dr. Korsh Jafarnia.
“He had a lot of swelling and we determined pretty quickly that he had developed compartment syndrome,” Jafarnia recalls. “So we took him to the operating room immediately.”
Compartment syndrome results from an increase in pressure in the muscle compartment. If this pressure is not released in a timely manner, it can cut off circulation and cause muscle and nerve damage, and in some cases, require amputation.
“Had the Methodist ER not set the fracture, compartment syndrome would have occurred much sooner and been much more devastating and resistant to treatment. But still, this injury was bad, at least 9.9 out of 10. We knew time was of the essence in order to save his arm,” says Jafarnia. “We had to make big incisions in his skin to release the pressure, and we used two plates and 12 screws to fix the fractures.”
After the surgery, Jafarnia had the difficult task of telling Chris and his family that his days as a competitive gymnast were probably over.
“He came in and broke the news to us, and then gave my dad and me a few minutes,” Brooks says. “My dad basically said there was nothing we could do about the injury and that I could either sit around and cry about it or do something about it. I’m not a quitter, so I decided to go for it.”
Brooks began intensive therapy treatment with Gail Hannahs, supervisor of sports medicine rehabilitation at Houston Methodist Willowbrook. Hannahs says her first job with patients is to get them to believe things will get better — then she works on the physical part of the rehab assignment.
“Because we knew he wanted to get back to competition, we began a pretty aggressive treatment regimen. We allowed him to do more things than the average patient,” Hannahs says. “Chris’ level of commitment was phenomenal and that helped him make great strides very quickly.”
Although he was committed, rehabilitation was not easy. Brooks required four more surgeries, including a flap procedure to fix his skin. Once he was strong enough, he got back on the high bar. He describes the first time he put on the grips and swung as “frightening.”
After enduring a two-year recovery process, he entered the University of Oklahoma, experienced his first year of uninterrupted training since his injury and took top honors in high bar at the U.S. Championships.
“I remember standing on the podium thinking to myself, I just won first place in the competition that almost destroyed me,” Brooks says. “Winning, after being told I might never compete again, was amazing and I knew my future was bright.”
Brooks worked through the pain by training and working hard toward his goal of making the U.S. Olympic Men’s Gymnastics team. Early in 2012, he was named an alternate.
“When I heard my name called, it was such a relief. I had finally made it all the way back,” Brooks says. “I owe a lot to Dr. Jafarnia, Gail and everyone else who helped in my rehab. They knew what I wanted to do and they jumped through hoops to get me there.”
“If a thousand people have this injury, maybe one of them would have the result Chris has had,” explains Jafarnia. “His passion, determination and sheer will to compete fueled our passion as doctors and specialists to help him get to where he wanted to be.”
What would his father think about him being named an alternate on the U.S. Olympic Men’s Gymnastics team?
“He would have been pretty pumped,” Brooks replies, “because he always told me I could do it.”