Ogden • Family and friends of senior infielder McKell McCuistion hold their breath nowadays when she rounds first base, the memories of what happened on a sunny and breezy Sunday morning in Las Vegas on Feb. 21, 2021, still in their minds.
McCuistion, then a junior, got all of a fastball down the middle and sent it over the right-field fence in the bottom of the sixth inning. She sprinted toward first base, initially unaware she’d hit the first home run of her softball career.
McCuistion didn’t play as much as she wanted her freshman year, and the following season was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. So going yard in just the 10th game of the 2021 preseason portended great things for the Salem, Oregon, native.
But in the less than five seconds it took for her to reach first base, McCuistion’s world came crashing down.
“I just rounded first base too hard and twisted my ankle,” McCuistion said. “And things kind of spiraled.”
As McCuistion rounded first, her right ankle slipped on the bag and rolled over. Her sprint slowed to a home run trot, but she turned the same, now weakened ankle again on the third base bag. She finished the game — a 5-1 Wildcats win over Cal Baptist — albeit in some pain. Her initial diagnosis was a sprained ankle.
The next three days consisted of frustration, confusion and, most of all, pain. McCuistion could barely walk or sleep. When she could sleep, she did so on the couch because she couldn’t use the stairs to go to her bedroom. One night, she had to get up and let in her roommate who was locked out, and she burst into tears from the pain.
Over those three days, multiple trainers and doctors scrambled to figure out why McCuistion wasn’t getting better. Why her ankle wasn’t swollen but causing her so much pain. Why she felt tingling and weakness in her leg muscles. They all said they couldn’t think of anything else other than a typical or even a high ankle sprain.
McCuistion had never sprained her ankle before. When her teammates heard her complain about the pain or saw her drag her foot around, they initially thought she was just being overdramatic.
“We were like, ‘Geez, either McKell is a wuss or something’s really wrong,’” Wildcats fifth-year senior outfielder Katelyn Whiting said.
When it became clear she was dealing with something other than a routine injury, McCuistion went to see some doctors from McKay Dee Hospital who were on the Weber State campus. They asked the same questions her trainers and other doctors had, and came to the conclusion something else was wrong.
An ultrasound later revealed what was indicative of a rare condition called acute compartment syndrome, which happens when pressure builds inside a muscle compartment and cuts off blood flow, leading to necrosis, or tissue death, if left untreated. It usually only shows up after a blunt trauma such as a car crash or bone break.
In McCuistion’s case, turning her ankle ruptured an artery, causing internal bleeding in her leg, which then cut off circulation to her muscles. “It was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced,” she said.
Alex Leonardi, Weber State’s trainer for soccer and softball, suspected acute compartment syndrome, but wasn’t confident he was right.
“It could be, but it’s so rare,” Leonardi recalled thinking.
Once the right diagnosis was determined, McCuistion was fast-tracked into surgery for a fasciotomy, where the thin lining covering the muscle in her leg was cut to relieve pressure in order to treat the loss of circulation and avoid necrosis.
Doctors told her if it had been just a few hours later, she could have lost her leg.
“It felt like an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’” Whiting said.
McCuistion’s mother, Heidi, learned of her daughter’s imminent surgery and worst case scenario when Leonardi called to update her. She then got in her car with McCuistion’s sister, Hayley, and drove from Oregon to Utah.
“I hadn’t even heard of compartment syndrome before,” Heidi McCuistion said. “So in my mind, I just was praying and hoping that everything went well and that she wasn’t going to lose her leg.”
McCuistion didn’t have time to fully process the possibility of being an amputee in real time. Moments after they told her what could happen, they whisked her away, hooked her up to an IV and operated.
“It was more of like relief that they figured out what was going on and that I could get it fixed,” McCuistion said. “At that point, I wasn’t thinking about losing my leg. I was like, ‘They’re gonna fix me right now,’ which is what happened and it worked out perfectly.”
Whiting, however, felt like the worst-case scenario for McCuistion would be no match for her friend and roommate she affectionately calls “Smelly.”
“My first thought was that if that had happened, McKell would have been the first [Division]-I softball player with just one leg because I wouldn’t have let her quit,” Whiting said. “Just knowing McKell and the kind of dedication she has, she wasn’t going to let something kind of silly like that beat her.”
Acute compartment syndrome is rare. “Incidence is estimated to be 7.3 per 100,000 in males and 0.7 per 100,000 in females,” according to one study. McCuistion’s case, given the specific circumstances that led to it, is even rarer: it was determined to be only the 12th such case recorded in history, her trainer said. Doctors have already done case studies about it.
“I think it’s crazy,” Heidi McCuistion said of the case’s rarity. “Absolutely crazy.”
Whiting thinks the rarity fits.
“It would happen to Smelly because she’s such a special and unique person,” Whiting said. “She has to have something cool like that that she could tell that story.”
After several weeks of rehab, some of which she did at home in Oregon, McCuistion started being around the team again. But it pained her not to be on the field with her teammates.
“I felt useless in practice,” McCuistion said. “I felt like I just wasn’t involved in anything. I tried as hard as I could but you do what you can. Being honest, I was really sad that the season was happening without me and I just wanted it to be over.”
But she had a breakthrough 2022. She started 49 of 50 games, hit 10 home runs and batted in 41 runs. She became one of the best power hitters on the Wildcats.
McCuistion has one more year of eligibility with Weber State, but said she won’t exercise it. The 2023 season will be her last. So far this season, she’s batted .469 — a career-high — and batted in nine runs in 19 starts.
Nowadays, McCuistion wears a brace on her right ankle as a precaution. Her leg gets tired more quickly, and there’s some nerve damage that should subside, but it’s not clear when that will be.
But she’s come away with a newfound appreciation for the simpler things in life — walking and doing things on her own. She discovered she has a “really high pain tolerance.”
And she feels like she can handle anything life throws at her.
“I feel like the world can hit me and I’ll be ready for it,” McCuistion said.
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