Two hip replacements can't bench this referee

Game: Despite what many might consider a disability, John Sheehan expects to officiate about 70 lacrosse contests this spring.

Howard At Play

March 14, 2004|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When John Sheehan runs down the field, officiating a men's lacrosse game, he knows he is wearing out his hips.

That would be the two artificial hips - needed as a result of Lyme disease - that allowed Sheehan to return to the sport he has loved since high school. His right hip was replaced in June 2002, the left in November 2002, just after he turned 47.

Despite what many might consider a disability, Sheehan, a Howard County fire department captain who lives in Ellicott City, expects to officiate about 70 games this spring, meaning virtually every day from mid-March to mid-May.

He is also commissioner of the Southern Lacrosse Officials Association, which makes him responsible for assigning nearly 130 referees to all middle and high school games in Howard, Carroll, Baltimore, Harford, Queen Anne's, Kent and Cecil counties, Baltimore City, the Washington Catholic Conference and several independent schools.

Sheehan's love for lacrosse began at Baltimore's Cardinal Gibbons High School, where, cut by the baseball coach, he took up the sport, eventually playing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. An Achilles tendon injury ended his playing there. After college, he coached at Gibbons for two seasons, then began officiating.

Sheehan's medical problems began in 2001, when he was stricken with Bell's palsy, which caused paralysis on the right side of his face.

Doctors treated the condition with steroids, which, as it turned out, compounded the undiagnosed Lyme disease and caused a condition known as asymptomatic vascular necrosis (AVN) - which, in Sheehan's case, compromised the blood supply to the top of his femurs, or thigh bones, causing the top of the bones to die.

"You don't know about it," Sheehan said. "It goes from being solid, like a golf ball, to being like a ping pong ball."

Sheehan, who also has been a soccer official, had been experiencing back pain, too. Then, ill with headaches and muscle aches, he asked his doctor for a blood test for Lyme disease, which is transmitted to humans from ticks. The day of the test, he broke out with a bull's eye rash, characteristic of the disease.

Dr. Leslie Fein, a rheumatologist affiliated with the National Lyme Disease Foundation, said Bell's palsy is not uncommon in Lyme disease, but that the steroids caused the femur to die. "Lyme is often treated for other things," she said.

Sheehan felt better with antibiotic treatment, but his back continued hurting and he noticed a click in his right hip while exercising, although X-rays showed nothing.

During a 2002 NCAA playoff game, something popped in that hip, he said, and he collapsed.

"From that point on, it was blinding pain," he said. "I felt something grating in my hip."

Magnetic resonance imaging revealed bad news - AVN, in both hips. His right hip was replaced at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington.

Sheehan spent six weeks on crutches and did his physical therapy exercises "religiously," but he missed refereeing so much that he began officiating volleyball, which didn't require running, although he found the standing to be difficult, too.

When similar back pain appeared, along with clicking in his left hip, he opted for surgery on that one in November 2002. Afterward, he recalled, the doctor told him he couldn't jump - no playing basketball or volleyball. The doctor recommended walking.

"I said, `What about refereeing lacrosse?' " Sheehan said. "He looked at me and said, `It's not recommended, but you're going to do it.' "

Although Sheehan was not allowed to jog, he was allowed to run in short bursts - what he needs on a lacrosse field. To get into shape for the season, he depends on bicycling and power walking, both easier on the hips.

On Feb. 22, last year, he returned to officiating lacrosse. His first game, a 23-0 blowout, was a happy experience: "I drove home, and I said, `God, that was great!' It taught me I was going to be able to do this."

After a scare, dislocating one hip at home, he was back calling college games by season's end.

"I had to change a little how I do things - I run backward more, I try not to pivot," he said.

Told of Sheehan running after double hip replacements, Fein said, "That's amazing. It's probably because he was in excellent shape before the surgery."

Added longtime lacrosse referee Bill Kelly: "If you didn't know John had had these two major incidents, you wouldn't know it. His speed is perhaps not what it was, but his dedication to the game of lacrosse is still there."

Sheehan also has been cleared for full duty in the fire department, although as a captain his duties in the field are less rigorous.

At 48, Sheehan said, he understands that his artificial hips are not expected to last for the rest of his life, which means another double hip replacement. So he figures he might as well run, even though each step could bring him closer to more surgery. He is willing, he said, to take the risk to remain active in the sport he loves.

"I want my quality of life," he said. "I'm going to wear them out."

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