My Misdiagnosis: The Emotional and Physical Impact

March 6, 2020

By Julia Elbaba, Tennis Professional

“Julia, I’m calling to discuss your MRI results. You have a Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) tear and bone spurs in your right elbow.”

This was only the start to a long, emotionally draining process. 

It was the middle of Summer 2018 when I was getting ready to take on a full professional tennis tournament schedule. I was traveling with my former college coach from the University of Virginia. A coach that had proven time after time to work well with my game and often times believed in me more than I believed in myself. Together, he helped me reach the #1 National Ranking in all of Division 1 Women’s Tennis. Additionally, I won the prestigious ITA National Indoor Championships held in Flushing Meadows, NY aka the home of the U.S. Open. We were ready to dominate the pro tour.

I vividly remember the first time I experienced elbow pain when I was competing in a $60,000 event in Ashland, Kentucky. I didn’t think much of it because as a professional tennis player, you get used to dealing with the occasional ache and pain. 

When the pain came on, I would think, “Oh, let me go get a pack of ice and take some Advil.” This did alleviate the pain leading me to think that the injury wasn’t anything serious.

A couple of tournaments later in California, I was mid-match and had to retire. I cannot recall when the last time I had retired from a professional match before this one. Every time I made contact on my serve, a sharp, extreme pain occurred in my elbow. I needed to get this checked out. Things were getting serious. 

This is when I went to the doctor for the first time. I got an MRI and was told that I had a bit of inflammation and needed to go to physical therapy regularly. He also said I could play tennis as the injury wouldn’t get worse. I thought this was odd as I was in a lot of pain and couldn’t understand how it was only inflammation. 

I decided to go with the plan. I went to a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) approved physical therapist. The offseason was approaching so I knew that if I could hang in there until a well-deserved break, I would survive. I played a few more tournaments towards the end of 2018. The pain was nonstop. 

Fast forwarding to early 2019, I took time off around the holidays and my inflammation was starting to calm down. I was having an easier time extending my arm, finally. That didn’t last long. I went to my first tournament of the year in Guadeloupe and the pain nearly came back immediately.

I went back to New York and back to the doctor. The doctor was as confused as I was at this point. He recommended for me to get an Arthrogram, imaging with dye injected into my joint. He wanted to see if more damage had occurred and the dye was supposed to help him see things better. He wanted to make sure there was no injury to my UCL ligament as that’s a dangerous area to injure. It oftentimes leads to Tommy John Surgery. 

The MRI report had come back and yet again, inflammation and NO damage to my UCL ligament. Words couldn’t describe how weak I felt at this point. This couldn’t be right. I get cavities filled without Novocain for goodness sakes! There’s no way my pain tolerance is THAT low. Explaining this to the doctor, he was becoming concerned that I had a nerve issue.

The next step was to get a cortisone injection guided by ultrasound. At this point, it all honestly felt like guess and check system we were using. There was no legitimate diagnosis and I was so frustrated. 

I was angry knowing that there was apparently nothing wrong with me, yet, I couldn’t complete a practice or go to a tournament and play a match pain free. Nothing except countless days and nights of tears shed and my phone thrown into the wall (not proud of that).

Eventually I decided I needed to see a specialist that works with professional athletes. He is one of the best orthopedic surgeons in the country. 

As he examined my elbow and my Arthrogram, he said he wanted a higher quality MRI taken here. Moments later, the doctor had me finished with my MRI, CT Scan and X-ray. It was only time before I would find out what was happening.

Two days later, I was getting ready for afternoon practice at the Bille Jean King National Tennis Center. My coach was holding my phone in case I got a phone call from the doctor. As my phone started vibrating and ringing 10 minutes into practice, I ran to my coach and answered, “hello,” as my heart dropped to my stomach. And there it was…

“Julia, I’m calling to discuss your MRI results. You have a Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) tear and bone spurs in your right elbow.”

Fast-forwarding a bit, I’ve been out of the sport I love for six weeks now. I’ve gotten Platelet–Rich-Plasma (PRP) Injections in conjunction with Physical therapy. PRP is known to work better if you catch your injury early on in the process. I have another doctor’s appointment in a month to see if the PRP treatment worked and if not, I’m potentially headed to get surgery. Not sure if it would be a repair or reconstruction quite yet. All I know is that it has and will continue to be a long road to recovery.

At the end of the day, I wish I had listened to my body instead of my misdiagnosis. If I had stopped when I was in pain instead of seeing how hard I could push myself knowing I wouldn’t make the injury worse, I wouldn’t be where I am today; sidelined indefinitely. I wanted to tell this story to share the lesson of how important it is to listen to your body. When enough is enough, step back. Yes, it’s important to see how far you can go in life but if you constantly get pushed down (in my instance, nonstop pain) it’s a cue to slow down.