[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1500.0"] Christina Ferfolia is back on the ice for her high school thanks to the help of Dr. George Friedhoff, sports medicine physician at the Spine and Orthopedic Institute at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center. [/caption]
Armored in oversize jerseys covering hulking shoulder pads and with heads swiveling in shielded cages, they look just like another hockey team. They look like high school boys at practice—smacking slap shots and charging into each other at high speed. That is until you catch a glimpse of long hair darting out of a helmet and a touch of eye shadow behind one set of face bars. While appearances may fool you to think that Christina Ferfolia is different—in reality, she’s just another spirited hockey player.
Like her teammates, she first laced up the skates and grabbed a stick at just five years old. While also excelling at softball and volleyball, hockey always held a special place in her heart.
“When I’m on the ice I never want to stop. When I’m out there everything goes away and it’s just me.”
As her game progressed, many of her fellow hockey players left for club teams that were all girls. Christina chose to skate a different path and tried out for her high school hockey team. There are only two other young women in the program—both are goaltenders, so Christina is the only girl skating across the ice. Yet she crashes the boards and takes hits with the best of them. This grit served her well when her biggest challenge came not from an opponent—but from within.
Just as she was set to begin her high school career, Christina started to feel intense pain in her back. At first they suspected scoliosis but then skating became nearly impossible. With her mother at the lead, she came to St. Vincent Charity and discovered the problem was a big word that could mean big trouble: spondylolisthesis.
“When I’m on the ice I never want to stop. When I’m out there everything goes away and it’s just me. — Christina Ferfolia”
One of her vertebrae had slid forward and over the bone beneath it. The intense pain was from nerves being squeezed and the condition meant long term complications without surgery.
“I was speechless—other than crying. The idea of not playing was earth shattering. It felt like the end of my world.”
While surgery was the only option, her team of doctors began to compose a personalized plan to get Christina back on the team as soon as possible. Beyond the innovative approach, Christina and her mom, Chris, felt that it was their personal skills that made the difference.
“Dr. Friedhoff had an amazing ability to connect with my daughter. I mean, by the time she saw him she was tired of the whole process and tired of listening to doctors with bad news. But what happened is he really listened to her. She had a voice in the process and he won her trust,” Chris said.
Both Christina and her mother recognized that Dr. Friedhoff and his colleagues shared her goal of getting her back on the ice. While her lifelong mobility remained the priority, they sculpted the entire process, from surgery to rehab—all with Christina’s comeback at the top of their minds.
“The morning of the surgery Mom and I got into the car. For some reason I wasn’t scared until then. It just hit me. I thought, wow, this is actually happening. But I told myself, you have to do this. This is how you are going to get back on the ice.”
With Dr. Thompson performing a successful surgery, Christina was back in the hands of Dr. Friedhoff to begin her climb back.
“Throughout the recovery, the follow-up appointments and the rehab, he was amazing. He was setting goals for me and motivating me to get there. This guy knows the mentality of sports. He understood where I was coming from. He held me back when he needed to and pushed me when the time was right. He was very down-to-earth, just easy to talk to. He kept reminding me that if I did the work, I’d make this comeback.”
The trust Dr. Friedhoff had earned was paying off. Christina did the work—she truly believed she could return to hockey. She was cleared to skate again but she had more work to do once she was back with her teammates.
“I felt bad because my skills had degraded but I knew I could get them back and I’m happy with how much I have improved.”
She has done more than improve. Christina just completed her first full season of high school hockey and ponytail and makeup aside, she’s skating with the best of the boys.
“Girls club hockey is fine but I like the more intense edge of playing with men. They hit hard and with speed but so do I. My teammates have been wonderful throughout it all. These guys are like my family; it’s like having thirty brothers,” Christina laughs.
She feels that her unique experience in high school will help her make a women’s college hockey team—which is an important goal for her. While she knows that skills on the ice are crucial, she admires her heroes more for what they do off the ice and her physical challenges have reminded her just how much this game means to her.
“I really look up to Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburg Penguins—he’s my favorite. Of course he is an amazing player but he seems very approachable. He’s a leader on the ice but he does so much in the community and he just seems like a man of the people.”