The news that Stephen Strasburg(notes) likely will need Tommy John surgery was unsettling. But while the procedure likely will sideline the Washington Nationals rookie right-hander through next season, the surgery is not career-ending. In fact, in many cases it restores careers, but not until the player goes through a long and arduous rehab. Philadelphia Phillies reliever Chad Durbin(notes), who bounced back strong from Tommy John surgery early in his career, shared his first-person account of the rehabilitation process with Sporting News' Chris Bahr:
I had my Tommy John surgery on Sept. 5, 2002. I was 24. The rehab protocol is designed well, and sticking to that protocol was my focus. I started out at a hand specialist in Baton Rouge during my offseason in the fall of 2002 and continued my rehab with the Cleveland Indians and their rehab coordinator (current Nationals head athletic trainer) Lee Kuntz.
Lee was outstanding at keeping a long-term outlook during the process. There were milestones in the protocol that I pushed to surpass and overcome, but Lee always would hold me back a week or two because his goal was for a long career after my rehabilitation – not to break any records by coming back quickly.
So, we'd have a "fun" little back and forth in which I'd get ticked off because I was being pushed back and told to wait longer for the next step. He'd always stand his ground and ask me to go for a little run to cool off … then, to come back focused.
Even with Kuntz doing the best he could to keep me from unnecessarily flying through my protocol (which I'm forever grateful for), I still ended up in Double A in June/July, in Triple A in July/August and in the big leagues inside of a year from surgery. I was a September call-up by the Indians in 2003. Secretly, one of my major milestones was to make it back to the major league level inside of a year after surgery.
My advice to Stephen would be to trust the experts. Trust your surgical team and their rehab protocol, and trust your athletic trainers. Your trainers are passionate about getting players back on the field. Whether that's a two-week D.L. stint, or a 12- to 18-month Tommy John rehab. Communicate well with the circle of people you're rehabbing with daily.
Many athletes get so focused on getting back as soon as possible, that they'll say or do anything to speed through process (can you blame them?). Control the variables you can control. I watched film to analyze my mechanics – to see if there were major inconsistencies that might have made me more susceptible to the injury.
Focus on maintaining your mechanics during the initial throwing weeks of the protocol and understand that both your shoulder and elbow are going to feel the rigors of the surgery and rehab. There's a significant difference between throwing through some soreness (scar tissue breaking up) and pain relating to re-injury.
Although I got back to a competitive level inside of 12 months, it wasn't until about 18 months after surgery that I felt like my arm speed and stuff were back to the level I was at before the surgery.
Continue to have high long-term expectations for yourself, but focus on each day of the protocol first. This process made me a better person, son, brother, friend and – after I was married and had a child – a better husband and father. You'll come out of this better than before.
I'm almost eight years out of my Tommy John surgery. Kuntz knew what he was doing, and I'm pleased to know that he'll play a role in rehabbing Strasburg after the UCL replacement procedure.