DeKalb junior Katie Kowalski grew anxious as the weeks in January passed by.
On New Year’s Eve, the former all-state pitcher had surgery that had about an 80 percent chance of saving her softball career. Her first rib had been removed to curtail thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that cut off blood flow from her arm, causing her hand to swell and her shoulder to become sore.
After a month, the moment of truth was about to arrive. She was finally allowed to pitch again.
“I was kind of scared to start back up again,” Kowalski said. “What if the surgery didn’t help, what if it didn’t fix it or I have some different kind of pain? It was really scary and nerve-wracking.”
The 2011 Daily Chronicle Player of the Year breathed a sigh of relief. While she wasn’t quite herself, her arm felt fine.
“It felt so good, especially having been so long since I could throw,” Kowalski said. “It felt really good to be able to throw well and be able to practice and to not have the problems that I was used to having at that point.”
Just a few months earlier, she thought her softball career might be over. After pain in her shoulder hampered her throughout the 2012 high school season, which doctors said was caused by a simple case of tendinitis, Kowalski’s hand began to swell and turn blue after a summer tournament with the Wasco Diamonds travel team.
As time went on, her hand would swell at sporadic times, like when she was jogging around a track or pushing a grocery cart or picking up her little brother
“It was really random, which made it that much more frustrating,” said Greg Kowalski, Katie’s father who’s also an assistant coach with the Barbs.
Doctors couldn’t figure out the problem, either. Months passed by with several doctor visits, and the problem persisted without a solution.
“When I went to the doctor and they told me that they didn’t know what was wrong, I would get so upset, and I would just start crying,” Kowalski said. “What if I never get to play softball again? Softball’s always been my whole life and everything I’ve wanted to do. I’ve always played. It was really hard to deal with and hard to handle during those couple of months when they had no answers for me.”
In December, a solution to the problem finally arose. Greg came across an article about a college softball player who had Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and was treated at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Weeks later, the Kowalskis made the drive up north to have tests done and, after a diagnosis, she had surgery to have the rib removed, allowing blood to flow freely from her arm to her heart.
“It was a huge relief,” Katie Kowalski said. “It felt so good to finally know what the answer was, that we could fix it, that I would be able to get back. I was really excited for my surgery, and everyone was like, ‘How can you be excited for surgery?’ But I was. It was able to fix my problem so then I could get back to softball.”
Kowalski is slowly working her way back to full strength. A setback early in the season gave her a scare, but the pain in her shoulder was caused by simply doing too much too soon.
She’s hoping to be 100 percent by the time the season ends, and she’s looking forward to impressing college coaches this summer with the Diamonds, who regularly play in high-exposure competitions.
While the injury hampered her during DeKalb’s playoff run last season, which ended in the regional, and took away her entire fall club season, there is a positive Kowalski has taken away from the injury. The sport that she loved was almost taken away from her, and in a way, she appreciates the game much more.
“There’s just so much more to it now,” she said. “When you’re at that point where it’s like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to do this again, that’s what I’ve done. Pitching is everything to me. Now, because of this, it makes me want to work so much harder to be the best that I can be and do the best that I can at pitching.”