A Wrestling Mom Tussles with Cauliflower Ear

For teenage boys on the wrestling team, engorged ears are badges of honor identifying them as fearless fighters. For a mom, they’re almost too grotesque to bear.

A Wrestling Mom Tussles with Cauliflower Ear

“I’m getting it! I’m getting the ear!”

Weldon stood in front of the bathroom mirror one morning before school in what could only be described as glee.

I was mortified. I inspected it and promised I would look it up online and see how to proceed as soon as I got to my office at the university. My oldest son’s ear was puffy, enlarged, crimson-swollen with blood. Mid-season of his junior year at the Chicago suburban high school on varsity and his fourth year of wrestling, he was getting it. I called Coach Mike Powell, the head varsity wrestling coach, sure that this would excuse my son from practice and upcoming matches for some time if not forever.

“It’s not a big deal,” Powell said.

I knew what the ear meant. His coaches all had the ear. Usually, the pair, like Powell. Misshapen and noticeably non-symmetrical, no two cauliflower ears manifested the same way. Some were outright horrific, elfin, pointed and enlarged — years after the trauma. Forever.

Were athletes who played volleyball so permanently changed? Swimmers? Some ears were just rounded and reddened, like mini water balloons. Others more grotesque, with the unpredictable crannies and bumps reminiscent of the plastic-molded models of mountains and volcanoes used in elementary school geography class.

It was cauliflower ear. But cauliflower was bland, pale, unremarkable. The name implies none of the mother terror it inspires, and none of the mysterious pride wrestlers associate with, well, this deformity. It scared me.

Would people stare? Was it my fault?

And why would anyone want one? Accepting the ear was another part of my sons assimilating to the tribe of wrestlers that I did not understand. Cauliflower ears were not required — no one was inducing the injury like some sadistic fraternity hazing ritual. But it was oddly OK with everyone, yes, everyone if you happened to acquire such a deformity along the way of your wrestling career. And if you were a wrestler from the youth sport at five or six years old through high school and college, then chances are your ears were a mess.

“You’ll want your girlfriend or your wife to like your ears,” I said to Weldon when I could think of nothing else to convince him it was not a good thing.

“I won’t be with a woman that shallow,” Weldon responded.

It was an acquired condition that came from repeated trauma to the ear, resulting in hematomas and a collection of blood and fluid that permanently damaged its structure. It was something wrestlers got after having their heads pulverized against a wrestling mat over and over during the course of several years, creating severe friction and a breakdown of cartilage. And for reasons I could not understand, wrestlers didn’t apologize for it, hide it or shrink from it. Some wanted to get it.

The ear is what they got when they did not wear the headgear in practice that was required in folkstyle competition. They did not wear it off-season in freestyle or Greco. To me it would be like lifting a pan out of the oven without wearing oven mitts, knowing your hands would burn and blister and it would hurt, but you did it anyway because you believed it meant you were a good cook.

Season after season most wrestlers skipped the headgear no matter how many times their mothers or fathers made them swear they didn’t. Cauliflower ear was not for the accidental wrestler, it was for the wrestler who saw the sport as something far more than six minutes of competition wearing a singlet. It was for the real wrestler, the one who believed all those sayings on the t-shirts, like, “Go hard or go home,” “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” or “Tap out or pass out.”

The affliction was painful and impossible to disguise. If the wrestler wore his hair below his ears to cover it off-season, then maybe you wouldn’t notice. But in season, long hair was not allowed, or at least not encouraged. If a wrestler had long hair, he was required to wear a hair cap. Few wanted to wear the cap — short hair and a wrestler’s physique were other signs you were in the tribe.

Like the calluses on the hands of an expert shoemaker, cauliflower ear showed the world that you wrestled with everything you had, and a little thing like a permanently deformed ear would not dissuade you from the sport. Wrestling mattered, the cosmetic appeal of your ear didn’t.

Wrestler ear, boxing ear or rugby ear, were emblematic of all I found counterintuitive and all that I knew instinctively about trying to keep my three boys from harm. Weldon earned the ear in his junior year. Brendan earned the ear the next year, his sophomore year. Weldon’s right ear and Brendan’s left, with shifting lumps and swollen tissue, were visible reminders of all that was startlingly different about us: their maleness and impulsivity, their determination, lack of vanity, and a burning dedication to a goal regardless of price.

It was an outward sign that you were someone who considered suffering an inconsequential byproduct of greatness. This was the exacted cost and it was small compared to the monumental high of having a striped-shirted referee thrust your hand in the air in victory over your most fierce opponent. It was a sign that you were good and you wrestled for a very long time.

The second day of his engorged ear, I took Weldon to the emergency care center near our house, the one near the video store at Harlem and North avenues. It was the spot I called the drive-through doctor or Doc in the Box— where I took the boys before or after work in emergencies and upon suspicions of bronchitis or infections; open at seven a.m., closed at eleven p.m., able to do X-rays and stitches, a much better option than my pediatrician’s office, which was open at ten a.m. and closed at four p.m., timing that was after I left for work and long before I got home.

“This is stupid,” he said on the ride to the immediate care site.

Weldon was clearly annoyed and I was surely a pathetic, overprotective mother for making him go to the doctor in the first place. Heck, he could just stab himself with a needle and puncture it, drain it and be done. His coach told me all it needed was a draining. Weldon at first said the trainer would drain it in the wrestling room that afternoon, and I cringed. He came home from school with it un-drained. Then he asked me to please just get a needle and drain the blood from his engorged right ear. I almost puked.

The doctor on call was a beautiful African-American woman, about ten years younger than me and clearly disapproving of the sport.

“He needs to wear head gear,” the doctor said.

I know. I tell him all the time.

She had him lie down on the table and the nurse who always talked to me kindly when I came in with each of the boys spread paper toweling across his chest and neck and attached it to his t-shirt with a metal clip. She cleaned and then sponged the ear with iodine, injected anesthetic and took a scalpel to the part of the inner cartilage swollen with blood, the hematoma that had developed under the skin.

She was deliberate and calm, not speaking. Weldon sighed heavily. I was amazed at how much blood and fluid spilled onto the paper towels — seemed like several ounces, but was likely only one or two. All I could think was these poor, beautiful ears of his. Look what wrestling has done.

It was almost closing time at the emergency care center when the doctor wrapped Weldon’s ear with a large bandage that made him look something like the illustration on the cover of “The Red Badge of Courage.” When he woke up in the morning, his ear was filled with fluid again, only this time it throbbed painfully. He was not happy.

After checking the instructions for a follow-up, I made an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist. The office was in Berwyn, a few suburbs over, and we had a 6:30 p.m. appointment the next day.

That day it snowed unforgivingly. I drove two hours from my office at Northwestern University in crawling traffic to get to the high school to pick up Weldon and another hour and a half to get a few miles to the new doctor’s office. The wipers were little protection against the driving snow.

“Why don’t you just leave me alone?” he asked.

I fought back tears. “I am only trying to do what is best for you.”

We arrived before eight p.m., after I called the office repeatedly to beg them to stay open. They did. This doctor was not so forgiving.

“You cannot wrestle with this ear for at least two weeks,” he told him.

Now I did it. I had taken away his chance to win at wrestling, to place at state.

He fidgeted in the chair as the doctor told him he would drain it again and this time stitch it down — literally sewing the front of the ear to the back — so the ear would not fill up with fluid. The doctor told him wrestling was a dangerous sport.

“My son plays soccer, why not try that?” the doctor asked.

I didn’t tell the doctor it was all wrestling all the time now; no more baseball, no more basketball, no more soccer. Just wrestling.

It was December and the season was heating up. He said he had no choice; he had to compete. When I stopped Powell at a meet, frantic about Weldon’s ear, he told me not to worry, that it would be fine. Weldon did need to wrestle. He was fine.

This was crazy. He had an injury for God’s sake.

Almost a week after he got the ear, after the trip to the emergency care and twice to the ear, nose and throat specialist Weldon despised, I emailed the boys’ pediatrician, Dr. Sharon Flint. We had developed a friendship over the years, seeing each other over the boys’ annual physicals. I explained Weldon’s condition to Sharon and she gave me the name of a specialist she recommended — Dr. Salil Doshi.

Weldon’s ear hurt, he admitted reluctantly, and even with the stitching and the bandaging, it was filling up again. It did not look any better, even though now it was covered with dried, blood-soaked bandages.

At his tidy office, Dr. Doshi listened to Weldon and nodded when Weldon explained how he needed to wrestle in a little more than a week. Finally, someone who understood him; I could read Weldon’s relief on his face.

Dr. Doshi said an operation was necessary. It would be outpatient, but he would be under anesthetic. He would drain and scrape the ear and reform it as best he could, then he would stitch the ear and it would return to normal in time. He was reassuring and confident. I made the arrangements.

A few days later, I was alone in the hospital waiting area, as I was always alone in the waiting rooms for the boys. I waited for their vaccinations, their dental cleanings, Brendan’s orthodontic appointments, their haircuts, the parent teacher conferences, for them to get showered and changed after games and meets. I waited for them in parking lots with the car running and the radio on, too tired to grade papers or return phone calls, just wishing I could go home or do something for myself, like go to the bathroom or shower.

In the recovery area, the doctor spoke to me confidently and showed me Weldon’s ear; it was perfect, pink and well-formed, an exact match to his left ear. Hours later it would fill again and swell, but that would recede, Dr. Doshi promised.

Less than a week later, Weldon wrestled in a match, his ear swathed in gauze bandages, his headgear secured with silver duct tape. He won the match. But he wrestled too soon, his ear did not have time to heal. He had the ear. In spite of the operation and the drainings, he had the ear. When all the wrestling was over, after college, after it all, I told Weldon I was taking him back to Dr. Doshi and I was going to fix it.

Because that was what mothers did. I was going to fix it.

The following December, my middle son, Brendan, got the ear. He was wrestling junior varsity as a sophomore, and apparently not wearing his headgear in practice either, because no one did. As soon as I noticed it and Brendan confirmed it, we scheduled an appointment right away to see Dr. Doshi. His waiting room was crowded, a clientele of elderly, middle aged and very young. One was a beautiful teen who had multiple piercings on her ear, apparently infected. The nurses were kind and the magazines were decent — National Geographic and Time. I hate the waiting rooms with only golf magazines.

Brendan and I waited in one of the white tiled patient rooms; Brendan reclining in the large leather chair that looked like a barber’s chair. Dr. Doshi was pleasant and reassuring. After Weldon’s visits and follow-ups, we were getting to be friends. This would go better than Weldon’s ear did, Dr. Doshi said, since we didn’t wait so long to come to him. Brendan winced when his ear was drained. Unlike Weldon, Brendan agreed not to wrestle for a week to let it heal. So it did.

But in March of the next year, we were back again. Dr. Doshi drained Brendan’s same ear again, puncturing the engorged ear with what looked like an X-acto knife, then a surge of blood, a few black stitches and it was bandaged. We were gone.

But a year later, Brendan’s ear appeared worse than Weldon’s. Dr. Doshi said plastic surgery can fix the ears, not like new, but they could be improved.

My youngest, Colin, did not get the ear. I reminded him constantly to be sure he was wearing his headgear in practice. You would think wrestling made an athlete deaf as well. Colin said he didn’t care; it would be OK, he would even like it if he got the ear. He calls the ear a badge of honor.

Years later, only sometimes when I look at Brendan and Weldon’s ears I don’t feel like crying.