Goalie’s hockey future is ‘on ice’

BY TAD JOHNSON

Former Eagan High School goalie hasn’t returned to ice for U of M since suffering a severe concussion last October

Natalie Darwitz was on the bench Oct. 18, 2010, as an assistant coach for the University of Minnesota when goalie Alyssa Grogan, a fellow Eagan High School graduate, suffered a severe concussion that has prevented her from returning to the ice ever since.

Grogan was participating in a “race to the puck” drill when one player’s knee hit her forehead and another player fell on the back of her head. She wishes she never poke-checked the puck that day because since then her concussion has kept her from playing the game she loves, and completing that semester’s worth of classes at the university.

Grogan, who never missed a game due to injury as a Wildcat varsity hockey player from 2004-2008, has needed all the support she’s received from her team, family, friends and her own faith as she’s endured headaches, uncertainty and countless visits to a range of medical specialists.

“It has drastically humbled me and I have a much greater perspective for what is important in my life,” said Grogan, the daughter of Steve and Karla Grogan and sister to Derek, 23. “I want to get my degree. I want to be able to work full days in the future. I want to go a day without a headache. I want to be able to wrestle with my kids 10 years down the road. Those are the things that are important to me.”

For Grogan, who started playing hockey at age 8 and won a gold medal with the U.S. National Team at the 2008 World Championships, the game is on hold. “There is a chance I will never play hockey again but I’m still optimistic I’ll have that chance again,” she said. “After almost a year of feeling crappy and being exhausted, my main focus is on getting back to feeling like myself and fully recovering from this very serious concussion.”

Road to recovery

After Grogan took the hit, she shook it off, stayed on the ice and in the net. She said the drill was stopped when the coach noticed something was wrong with Grogan. “I was in a complete daze, couldn’t see what was happening and was very out of it,” Grogan said. She was sent directly to the training room.

“I felt very groggy and instantly exhausted. As I waited between the tests that our athletic trainer did with me, I fell asleep each time,” she said. “I had a headache and felt as if I didn’t have my contacts in because everything was extremely foggy and blurry.”

After her initial evaluation, she saw the team’s physician that night and the following day had a CT scan and a few days later an MRI of her brain and neck because her symptoms escalated. Since that time she has seen a neuropsychologist, neuro-opthamalogist, optometrist, vestibular therapist, and physical therapist, as well as a team physician weekly and athletic trainer daily for visual and vestibular therapy. She’s had acupuncture, massage and chiropractic treatment on her neck.

Grogan said the team’s athletic trainer, Amy Hamilton, has taken her to all her doctor’s appointments and even accompanied her to Pittsburgh, Penn., for two full days of appointments at the country’s leading concussion research institute. She’s also been there to listen to Grogan’s concerns.

“What keeps me positive is knowing there is hope,” she said. “My doctors have not guaranteed me that I will play again; but they have told me that with the right treatment and more time I can fully heal from this.” Her visual and vestibular (balance/spatial orientation) systems were severely damaged as a result of her concussion, but doctors have ruled out any injury to her neck or bleeding on the brain.

The injury has forced Grogan to adjust the athlete’s mentality that if you push through and work hard, you will get where you want to be. Recovery from a concussion runs counter to that – too much activity will only set you back. “The most difficult part of this recovery is having no timeline and that there aren’t many people who can understand what you are going through,” she said.

She says she’s been given this injury for a reason. She’s been active with the university’s medical department, talking to medical staff and students about her injury and other patients about living with a concussion. Grogan’s message to athletes is not to “mess around” with a concussion and take one’s recovery seriously. Winning and losing is inconsequential when compared with allowing one’s brain to recover, so “no matter what the pressure feels like, remember what is most important to you, and that is you. Don’t lose hope and persevere.” She urges teammates to be supportive, but don’t push friends to get back on the playing field or ice. “To the parents, love your child. They may need lots of extra hugs and chats,” she said.

The concussion has not only been a setback in Grogan’s athletic career, but also her academic pursuits. She said she slept for 20-22 hours a day for the first six weeks of her recovery, and she was unable to finish her classes for the semester. She can’t go to movies, concerts or go anywhere that is loud and busy.

“The thought of being an energized, headache-free self again keeps me motivated,” Grogan said. “The thought of being a normal college student who can cram for tests and stay up late studying is exciting to me. Whenever I get discouraged, I remember that there are always people who are worse off.”

On her wrist is a narrow band that reads: “GODSTRONG.” It is a simple message that guides Grogan’s faith to remind her there is a lesson to be learned from everything and there is always hope.

There is no doubt that she embodies both parts of that single word on her wrist, which she says will lead her back to becoming a full-time student, a Division I athlete and some day “putting the Maroon and Gold back on!”

Tad Johnson is Managing Editor of Thisweek Newspapers and the Dakota County Tribune Business Weekly.