24 April 2012

Athlete with Traumatic Brain Injury Plays Again

Story first appeared in The Arizona Republic.

Frogs danced through the air, and a high school softball player smiled. Look, she told her sister on the phone, one was threatening to poop above Mommy's head.

The 16-year-old's CT scan had come back fine, hours after a line drive hit her helmet during a softball game March 10, 2009. But she and her mother, a nurse, sat in the hospital, not convinced, until they were, horrifyingly, proven correct by the hallucinations.

By the time she woke up the next morning, still wearing her softball pants and socks, she knew only one person - Mommy. Not her sister, whom she spoke with the night before. Not her father or her little brothers or her teammates or her friends.

Her speech was slowed and slurred, and she limped like a stroke patient. She didn't know how to use the toilet, or count to 10.

Doctors would later liken her traumatic brain injury, a severe concussion with amnesia, to shaken-baby syndrome.

That morning she appeared to have the mentality of a 2 year-old. Yet, who three years later has become the Arizona Wildcats' starting right fielder.

16 years of memory erased
The thud on the school-issued helmet was firm and deafening, like a rock chucked at a shed.

She had taken a lead off third base after the fourth-inning pitch was thrown to her Elk Grove (Calif.) High School teammate. The ball was ripped foul down the third-base line, hitting her helmet an inch behind her right temple. A halo formed around where the ball had left an indentation on the helmet.

She didn't even fall down. She smirked.

After a consultation with her coach, she was allowed to stay in the game.

During the course of the game she struggled at shortstop, and was moved to the outfield. When the game ended, she wandered around. She didn't know the date. Her eyes looked empty.

Her mother took her daughter to her Sacramento hospital, where a CT scan came back negative and doctors found no sign of the brain bleeding.

When she started reaching for invisible frogs, she was moved across town to a hospital that treated juveniles. A neurologist stated that there likely wouldn't be any permanent damage, which gave the family hope.

But the straight-A student still didn't recognize visitors. Her first breakfast was scrambled eggs with ketchup. She didn't recognize it, and didn't know if she even liked that kind of food.

As therapy, she used crayons to draw pictures for teammates to put in their pockets during games. She put an "EG" on her coach's hat, even though she didn't remember her school's name was Elk Grove. She drew her pregnant assistant coach with a bulging stomach, a memory buried deep, somewhere.

She lost the entire 16 years of her memory.  When asked how old she was, she held up five fingers. Presumably because she had five fingers on her hand, not because she thought that she was five years old.

Three days into her stay, her father, watched her limp up a handicap ramp. When she reached the top, she screamed with revelation and recognized her father. The next day, she texted her sister, telling her that she remembered who she was.

Memory, Migraines, rage

During six days at an inpatient rehab center in nearby Roseville, she relearned how to walk and shower and talk clearly. She pranked the grandmother nearby by removing Arizona State logos from her door.

Friends came by, reintroducing themselves, and showed photos of junior prom the week before.

She returned home. Her mom took three months off work and put her on a home-school program.

But when she took the dog on a walk, she got lost. She didn't know left from right. She couldn't sing the ABCs. She couldn't spell, but, somehow, could text-message.

She had daily migraines and naps. Her daily regimine including taking nine pills a day, everything from seizure-prevention meds to anti-depressants to pain relievers. Most of her memory returned. At the end of spring, she scored well enough on the SAT for UA admittance.

Like many patients with traumatic brain injuries, she has struggled with fits of rage. She caused $700 of damage by busting three doors and two walls of her mother's house.

UA stood by her

She returned to Elk Grove for her senior year and was cleared to play softball. When she visited Tucson that year, the UA coach told her he would honor her scholarship, even if she wasn't able to play. She signed a national letter of intent.

At 19, she was slated to be the Wildcats' everyday shortstop last year before tearing the labrum in her right shoulder a week before the season. She sat out the season, and moved to the starting right field spot this year, in part because her shoulder is at about 80 percent strength.

Thanks to the team's vision-therapy program, the redshirt freshman - whose .331 batting average is third-best on the team - sees the ball as well as she has since the accident pooled fluid behind her left eye.

She wants to work for Nike's marketing department, but has to study longer and struggles to focus to realize her dreams. She puts in her iPhone earbuds with no sound to do homework, so no one bothers her.

Her lawsuit against the school district - which she said would not allow her to wear a more advanced helmet - is pending. Her high school team now wears the same high-tech helmets the Wildcats do.

She talks openly about her accident, in part to encourage helmet safety.

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