From brachial plexus birth injury to Division I athlete

Piper Hampsch lead image Thriving blog brachial plexus birth injury field hockey Duke

“Other players and coaches don’t see the powerlessness behind my condition, or the struggles I’ve had to go through to get to where I’m at. They just see me making saves other people can’t make. It doesn’t matter if I have two arms, one arm or no arms.  As long as I make the save, they don’t care.” – Piper Hampsch

Piper is one of the best high school field hockey goalies in the country. She committed to Duke University last year as a sophomore, and will be playing college field hockey in 2020. In case you don’t closely follow collegiate field hockey, Duke was #1 in the nation last year in the final NCAA rankings. Safe to say, Piper is exceptional in her sport, and other teams and players take notice. But many of the athletes she plays against are unaware that Piper was also exceptional at birth.

From injured to active

Born with a brachial plexus birth injury, the nerves between Piper’s neck and shoulders were damaged to the point that her right arm was significantly weaker than her left and barely able to move. Piper came to Boston Children’s Hospital at 3 years old, and underwent a tendon transfer surgery with Dr. Peter Waters, orthopedic surgeon-in-chief and director of the Brachial Plexus Program. Following her surgery, she returned to Boston Children’s every six months for evaluation and serial MRIs, while constantly working on building strength in her right arm through physical therapy.

Piper Hampsch physical therapy PT brachial plexus birth injury
Piper doing physical therapy exercises at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“Almost every child with a brachial plexus condition will need continued formal therapy and rehab, and sometimes surgery like Piper had, ” explains Dr. Waters. “But eventually what they need is an external activity that is highly social and that they’re interested in and passionate about.” Piper found those activities in competitive dance and gymnastics at the age of 5. She soon discovered that competitive dancing was actually strengthening her arm more than her physical therapy sessions, as she was constantly moving her arm for weight support, performing tricks and just trying to keep up with the other dancers.

“Dr. Waters was always encouraging me to get involved in competitive activities and not be different than the other kids,” Piper recalls. But after ten years of competitive dance, she began to lose interest. “It was a really good experience, but after I while I just didn’t want to do it anymore,” she says. “But I couldn’t just drop every single activity because that wouldn’t be good for my arm. I started picking up other sports like basketball and softball and eventually field hockey, because my sister had played it.”

Finding her calling

Field hockey was always a part of her family, so Piper knew that it was a right-handed sport. “I wasn’t really sure what to do, because I knew I wasn’t going to have as strong of a hand as the other kids,” she says. “I decided that I’d try to be a goalie, because you can use your feet and you don’t have to use your arms as much.”

When Piper first began playing, it was a struggle to catch up to the other athletes. But as she continued training, she grew stronger and more skilled. She made the high school varsity team as a seventh grader, began playing on club teams and would eventually make the indoor national team. “My arm was never a problem and no one noticed it.  I would go to camps and tournaments and people would see small differences, but ultimately I ended up being better than other kids despite my arm,” Piper says.

The hard work mindset

With a work ethic rarely found in most adolescents her age, Piper has fully dedicated herself to getting better at her sport. “It’s about the work,” she says. “You only have so many hours on the field or in the gym; it’s about the work you put in when nobody’s watching. Doing the extra rep or even doing something like a pushup, it’s going to take me a little longer but I’m not going to cheat it. I’m going to do every single one and do it to the best of my ability.”

Despite already being committed to play field hockey at one of the best universities in the country, Piper isn’t done working. “I know a lot of high schoolers in my position would just coast, but my mindset is the opposite,” she says. “Because I’m already committed, I know I have something bigger to work towards and I want to make sure that I’m prepared to the best of my ability for the real world and college.”

Recently, Piper has been extra motivated in both her physical therapy exercises and in the weight room. Her motivation and desire to go the extra mile are spurred by her not-so-distant past, when her right arm was much weaker and left her noticeably behind in development compared to most kids her age. “I could put in the same amount of effort as the person next to me and barely get there,” she recalls. “Having to put in the extra effort all the time — not because I wanted to, but because I had to — really changed the way I think. I don’t know what my mindset would be today if I didn’t have that experience.”

Seizing the opportunity for greatness

Despite the fact that she now only sees Dr. Waters every few years, Piper still feels his presence in her day-to-day life. “Without him and the care he has provided ever since my surgery, I wouldn’t be the athlete or person or have the drive or the mindset that I have today,” Piper says. “The whole course of my life has been shifted because of him and I’m so grateful.”

Waters has proudly watched Piper grow and develop, and was not at all surprised by her success on the field. “After a certain point, all I can do is encourage Piper and her family,” he says. “I told her that the athletic opportunities she wants are available to her if she wishes to get them. Her brachial plexus won’t stop her — other things might, but it won’t be that. As you can see, she hasn’t let anything get in her way.”

Learn more about the Brachial Plexus Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.