(PHOENIX – June 24, 2021) – An Arcadia High School graduate has returned to the collegiate softball diamond after a successful and rare operation at Phoenix’s Norton Thoracic Institute restored her throwing arm and defied doctors who said her playing career likely was over.
Ari Abalos, a Portland State third baseman, started to feel pain in her right (throwing) shoulder during the spring of 2018. She experienced numbness, swelling and discoloration. One day at practice, her arm locked up and she was rushed to the emergency room, but brain scans and MRIs showed nothing.
“It was like my brain wasn’t working with my arm,” says Abalos, 22.
After Abalos visited a succession of doctors and received a variety of diagnoses, she researched doctors online and found Samad Hashimi, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Norton Thoracic Institute at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. Dr. Hashimi diagnosed Abalos with a relatively rare condition called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. On Sept. 19, 2018 he removed her first rib to relieve pressure from surrounding nerves.
“Thoracic Outlet Syndrome requires a multidisciplinary approach for treatment, and diagnosis requires astute neurologists, physical therapists and a surgeon,” Dr. Hashimi says. “The treatment can be complex but with the proper team, majority of patients can return to the full functional ability they had prior to surgery. At Norton Thoracic Institute our multidisciplinary approach is individualized to each patient’s needs.”
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is caused by the compression or “pinching” of nerves and blood vessels in the space in the lower part of the neck, above the clavicle, across the first rib and through the upper part of the arm. The compression of these nerves can be caused by a variety of reasons, including physical trauma and repetitive motion injuries related to job or athletic activities.
The condition is becoming more common among MLB pitchers, with more than a dozen being publicly diagnosed in recent years – including Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly, who has returned to the mound this season after having the surgery in September 2020.
Abalos says she felt immediate relief after surgery and, following a lengthy rehabilitation, returned to the PSU Vikings midway through the 2019 season. While her game appearances were promising, her junior season was cut short in March due to COVID-19. She returned to action with the Vikings in 2021, helping lead the team to the Big Sky Conference championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
“A lot of doctors told me that I wouldn’t be able to play again or that it would be a 50-50 chance,” Abalos says. “Now that I am able to play, I appreciate it so much more. I know it’s not going to be there forever.”
“I’m pleased to see that Ari has made a full recovery and is back on the field. Positive patient outcomes like Ari’s are incredibly rewarding,” Dr. Hashimi says.
Abalos’ long and painful medical journey also impacted her life off the field. She is majoring in Health Sciences, and she says her experience has led her to plan a career in medicine.
“This is one of the main reasons why I want to go into the medical field,” she says. “I’ve seen 20-plus doctors, so I’ll really be able to empathize with patients because of my experience.”