A Life, Back on Course

St. Louis Shriners Hospital team helps Kansas teen pursue college golf dreams

When Kerrigan approached the tee on the 530-yard par-5 first hole at Sugar Hills Golf Course while home for spring break, mentally, she was more than a few moon shots from where she was just a few years before.

Staring down the not-yet luscious green Goodland, Kansas, fairway in the early spring cool, it was just her, the dimpled white ball and her club – a bigger version of what she first picked up at age 3.

She didn’t even feel like the same girl who, as a soon-to-be high school sophomore, lay flat on her back on the unforgiving hardwood of a basketball court, unable to stand and ready to give up after more than a year trying to manage pain so sharp it felt like a hundred knives stabbing her at once.

Kerrigan is back on course and back on the course, a soon-to-be sophomore on nearby Fort Hays State University’s golf team. That’s a place she said she would never be were it not for the help of Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis.

A painful rebound

It’s easy to apply the word “tough” to Kerrigan – a name her parents derived from the moniker of the villainess in the 1995 movie “Casper.” She’s a coach’s dream. Determined. Genuinely hesitant to talk about her individual accomplishments.  

Or you could pick “tenacious,” so much so that, when she had the opportunity to grab a defensive rebound during a game in the middle of her first high school hoops season, she wasn’t going to lose out. Not when an opponent crashed into her. Not when, fiercely unwilling to let go of that ball, she crashed to the ground in a twisted heap. Not when she felt and heard that “pop” in her lower back.

No, Kerrigan held on. Then she simply passed the ball to the point guard, picked herself up and sprinted down the court to get in on the offensive action.

For the rest of that season and into the summer session, she tried. She really tried. She’d pop ibuprofen and worked hard despite the pain.

But something wasn’t right. First she noticed and then others noticed that she was shuffling her feet as she ran up and down the court; it hurt too much to lift her legs. Still, she played on. It wasn’t until the final whistle sounded in the final game that she crumpled to the floor, sweat and tears mixing on the hardwood beneath her.

It was “just” a muscle tear, the emergency room doctor told her. Rest and physical therapy would help. So Kerrigan rested as best as Kerrigan ever rests, which is to say, “Not well.” She was back on the golf course that fall, back on the basketball court that winter.

“I’m not the type of person to give up and quit, but I wanted to give up and quit because the pain was so bad,” she said this spring break on a Zoom call, a Shriner’s Fezzy bear on her well-made bed behind her.

She told her parents, Emmet and Paige: This wasn’t a muscle tear. It was something worse.

She was right. A local doctor discovered a host of problems with her back. She had mild scoliosis in her upper back, three separate fractures and a condition called spondylolisthesis in which her vertebra were essentially slipping in different directions in her lower back.

‘Holy cow, this hospital is awesome’

A granddaughter of Jim Alcorn, a Shriner at the Northwest Kansas Shrine Club, competed alongside Kerrigan on the track team. He went to Kerrigan’s dad, told him they needed to make the nine-hour, 651-mile trip to the St. Louis Shriners Hospital.

It took some convincing – the family didn’t want to take the spot of somebody who might need the expertise of the Shriners Hospital physicians more – but eventually, they agreed.

And so Kerrigan found herself walking gingerly into the St. Louis Shriners Hospital, nervous about what might happen inside.

“I was like, holy cow, this hospital is awesome,” she said. “It opens your eyes when you walk in and see so many other kids my age and younger who are going through so much. I didn’t know how they could do it because I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t.”

Kerrigan was seen by Michael Kelly, M.D., a spine specialist and surgeon at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital. After fresh X-rays and a thorough examination, he presented her with two options: a back brace and physical therapy or surgery that might end any chance she had at continuing her athletic career.

She chose the brace, a medical device with which she quickly developed a love-hate relationship.

The hate came from the fact that, for a teenage girl, it made her different from her peers, an “other.” The love? Well, it didn’t take long for her back to start to improve.

Dr. Kelly cleared her to play golf roughly six months later. Thanks to the brace, the slipping vertebra had, to use a non-medical term, un-slipped. One fracture had healed. One hadn’t gotten any worse. And, Dr. Kelly told her, one was never going to heal and will likely force surgery at some point in her life.

The brace had helped strengthen her back. The physical therapy gave her a stronger core. The combination added yards to her drive, precision to her pitches and putts.

Then came her junior basketball season, back on the same hardwood where she had finally if only temporarily succumb to her pain.

“I was pretty scared of being aggressive with the ball,” she said. “I had those what-ifs in my head.”

She crumbled in tears to her mom several times when her game just wouldn’t come back. Mom had the right words: “Just play the game you were born to play.”

The switch flipped, that mental hurdle suddenly behind her. “It was like, if I’m going to fall, I’m going to fall,” she said. “I’m never going to be as good as I was if I’m gentle.”

That’s a familiar refrain with Kerrigan, the mission to be as good as she was before the injury, if not better.

And funny thing: Eventually, she was. She tore it up on the court and then led her golf team to an undefeated state championship her senior season. By that time, she had already signed to play at Fort Hays State. Why Fort Hays?

“I was looking for a place that felt like home, like how I felt when I walked into Shriners Hospital,” she said.

Her freshman college season started off rough. Four members of the seven-person team left the school. The remaining three – Kerrigan, another freshman and the junior leader – have pressed on as individuals, unable to compete as a team. Kerrigan’s own play hasn’t been where she wants it to be, but in typical Kerrigan fashion, she’s working on it. Having the proper perspective helps.

“I can play good, I can play bad, I can play ugly,” she said. “No matter how I play, I’m playing the game I love. There was a time when I thought I might not be able to do that.”

‘I guess I’m doing something right’

Off the course, Kerrigan is speaking up and speaking out – about what it’s like to be an athlete who is taken off the court and the course by an injury, about the Shriners who paved the road for her to Shriners Hospital, about the physicians and other members of the medical team who helped restore her back.

She’s spoken at local Shriners Club events and then at the Kansas Shrine Bowl in 2019. There, she met the girl whom she now considers her best friend, as well as a now-12-year-old boy named Eli, a fellow patient at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital.

“To have a bond with a kid like that… I’m part of their family now,” she said. “He looks up to me as an older sister. For a kid to tell me he’s looking up to me, I guess I’m doing something right.”

She’s also raised money and bought toys for the kids at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital, making sure they have something at the end of their beds to enjoy when they wake up from surgery.

“A thank-you is not enough for the people at the hospital and the kids in it,” she said. “I got the help I needed. I needed to give back because there are more kids who are going through more than I did.”

So Kerrigan sets her sights on the future, to becoming an elementary school teacher and returning to Goodland to coach the team to which she once brought a state championship.

‘God has a reason for everything,” he said. “He had a plan for my whole life. This whole thing made me grow and made me stronger as a person and an athlete. Without the help from Shriners Hospital, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I wouldn’t be living my dream.”  

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