Lauren’s goal: Soccer star beats odds and gets back to the field

neck-tumor“I remember the phone call after Lauren’s fall,” says Dr. Jordan Busch. “My wife said, ‘Lauren fell, and her vertebra is broken, but that’s not the bad news.’” A tumor had eaten away at one of the bones in Lauren’s neck and was lodged in their daughter’s cervical spine.

“I can still see the slow-motion tape in my head,” recalls Dr. Nancy Corliss, Lauren’s mother. “It looked like a routine soccer trip, and I did the three-second count every mother does.”

Nancy started running when she got to three. Lauren, then 12, and a star forward for a JBSC U12 team, was strapped onto a backboard and rushed to Morton Hospital in Taunton, Massachusetts.

This type of tumor is one in 250,000. To find any surgeon with the right experience and expertise is one thing, and to find a pair who had more experience than anyone else was incredibly fortunate. ~ Dr. Jordan Busch

After Lauren’s CT scan showed a tumor in her spine, her emergency physician told Jordan and Nancy, “Boston Children’s Hospital is the best place for your daughter.”

Lauren endured a second painful ambulance ride to Boston Children’s and then an MRI scan, which confirmed the tumor.

As her parents and doctors conferred, Lauren formed her goal — returning to the soccer field. She told her mother she needed a replacement for her lucky #28 soccer jersey. (Her jersey had to be cut off after the injury.)

Though Nancy gently explained the jersey wasn’t the top concern, Lauren remained adamant. After Nancy texted Lauren’s coach James Bede with an update on her condition, he had a new jersey made and delivered it to Lauren.

“I knew he believed in me,” says Lauren.

Tough choices: Medical or surgical treatment?

As Lauren mulled over her goal, her surgeons evaluated her condition. The tumor needed to be removed but was in an exceedingly delicate location. The second challenge? A sizable amount of one of the bones in Lauren’s neck had been destroyed.

The family met with a surgeon, who suggested treating Lauren’s tumor with medication for six weeks and then removing the tumor. Many patients with similar tumors in other bones are treated medically prior to surgery, but this potential treatment would require Lauren to delay surgery and recovery for six weeks.

Surgery is step one in a patient’s recovery. Lauren’s commitment to physical therapy and rehabilitation and continued good spirits played an equally important parts. ~ Dr. Dan Hedequist

Lauren was eager to start treatment. The family asked if there might be another approach.

Jordan explains, “I come from an engineering family. When I hear, ‘There’s a problem, here’s a solution,’ I ask, ‘Is there an alternative that’s as good or better than the first option.’ The only way to find out is to ask.”

Lauren’s medical team expanded to include Dr. Dan Hedequist, an orthopedic surgeon in the Boston Children’s Orthopedic Center, and Dr. Mark Proctor, interim chief of the Boston Children’s Department of Neurosurgery. The surgeons reviewed Lauren’s scans and agreed the best approach would be to operate right away.

Lauren and her parents agreed with the plan — confident that the assembled team could help Lauren meet her goal.

“This type of tumor is one in 250,000. To find any surgeon with the right experience and expertise is one thing, and to find a pair who had more experience than anyone else was incredibly fortunate,” says Jordan.

Lauren’s spine surgery

During Lauren’s 10-hour procedure, Proctor first removed the tumor from her spine. Next, Hedequist started reconstructing Lauren’s spine. He removed the decimated vertebra, inserting a cylindrical spacer in its place and anchoring it with a pair of rods, a plate and 10 screws.

Lauren was released from the hospital less than a week after surgery and began preparing herself for her ultimate goal of returning to play.

“Lauren has always been drawn to sports stories about overcoming adversity. She had that script in her head. Instead of feeling like her future was destroyed, she met this adversity head-on,” explains Nancy.

Hedequist says Lauren’s determination played a large role in her return to play. “Surgery is step one in a patient’s recovery. Lauren’s commitment to physical therapy and rehabilitation and continued good spirits played an equally important parts,” says Hedequist.

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Lauren with New England Revolution players Chris Tierney and Kelyn Rowe

The sidelined soccer star filled her time with books, movies and music. Her new playlist included “Titanium,” and “Happy.” She devoured sports books by Alex Morgan, Hope Solo and Mia Hamm and found inspiration in films like “Bend it Like Beckham.”

Three months after surgery, Hedequist gave her the green light for core-strength training with Nick Downing, the trainer for the New England Revolution. Downing helped Lauren rebuild the core strength and stability she needed to stay safe on the field.

Six months after surgery, Lauren reached her next goal — she was able to work out without the collar and begin running. Nine months after Hedequist rebuilt her spine, Lauren returned to soccer practice — with a brand new team.

Like Lauren, Coach Bede had a goal for his star player. He wanted to bring her back to her highly- competitive level of play and keep her safe on the field. But he was only coaching boys at the time. So Lauren played with his U13 boys team.

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“It felt great to get back on the field,” Lauren beams.

The unconventional arrangement was OK with her male teammates, too. Lauren was the team’s leading scorer in 2015.

Since then, Lauren has met and surpassed her goal. She joined her current team — the FC Boston Scorpions U14 NPL team the following year.

“Getting onto that team was a big moment for Lauren,” says Nancy. “She said she felt in that moment like she had ‘made it back.’”

Today, Lauren travels throughout New England with the FC Scorpions. “Coaches and parents who know her story are dumbfounded she can run and play at the level she does,” says Jordan, who credits his daughter’s achievement to her strength and determination, a bit of luck and location.

Lauren's reconstructed cervical spine
Lauren’s reconstructed cervical spine

“We were lucky the vertebra compressed as it fractured. If it had displaced, this could have been far more tragic,” he says. “As a practicing physician, I know how fortunate we were to be at Boston Children’s where there are two surgeons with more experience than anyone else with this type of tumor.”

Lauren, who returns to Boston Children’s every six months for an MRI scan to make sure there is no recurrence of the tumor, has set some additional goals for herself. She’s constantly working to improve her game and wants to be noticed as a highly competitive player — rather than a highly competitive player despite what she’s been through.

Yet, Lauren’s experience is integral to her aspirations. The star forward has a new goal. Lauren plans to start helping other athletes battling injuries and illnesses, showing them they can reach their goals.

Learn more about the Boston Children’s Complex Spine Program.