A sister’s words: The athlete who couldn’t be tamed by a brain hemorrhage

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When my 14-year-old sister Carly woke up on February 1, 2015, she thought about what snacks she wanted while she watched the Patriots play in the Super Bowl that night. She thought about whether there would be pancakes for breakfast. She thought about whether to go for her daily run or whether she should ride the stationary bike. Just the week before, she’d shattered her personal best time in winter track: a 5:32 mile. After pedaling on the bike for a few minutes, there was a sharp pain on the right side of her head.

Within minutes, Carly became lethargic, unresponsive and in serious pain. Sensing something wasn’t right, our Mom and Dad called 911. She was brought to Cape Cod Hospital where Dr. Brett Sylvia ordered an immediate CT scan. He returned hurriedly and explained that Carly had suffered a brain hemorrhage and needed to be med-flighted to Boston Children’s Hospital immediately. It was all a blur. She’s healthy; she’s incredible. Bleeding in the brain? Not possible. She’s going to be fine.

Dr. Ed Smith from Neurosurgery met our family in the ER, briefly explaining that Carly’s condition was life-threatening and time was of the essence. He needed to take her to surgery immediately. My parents, brother and I rushed our I-love-you, Carly, and watched her disappear behind elevator doors. Seven hours later, Dr. Smith found us in a family waiting room. He explained she had an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) that had burst in her right temporal lobe and caused a large brain hemorrhage that was flooding her ventricles. She was a beautiful case, he said; he had given her a bad haircut and removed the entire AVM.

Well wishes from Tom Brady
Well wishes from Tom Brady

“Do you know what your name is?”

“Carly.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Boston Children’s Hospital.”

“Do you know what day it is?”

“Super Bowl Sunday.”

Carly spent four more days in the ICU with a drain at the top of her head and IVs in her arms. The athlete couldn’t be tamed, though: nurses had to move her blood pressure cuff halfway through the night because she kept flexing in her sleep and setting off erratic readings. She stood up and walked at too quickly of a pace, unwilling to slow down. Breaks from her extended sleeps were riddled with sarcastic jokes, Disney songs and Super Bowl highlights. It’s not by any means easy, and it’s certainly far from all smiles in recovery—that’s for sure. But those moments upheld my unwavering belief in her: she’s healthy; she’s incredible. She’s going to be fine.

She was moved to a neuro-stepdown room and given strict instructions to walk, and eat and drink as much as possible—whatever she wanted. I’ve never seen someone pair bacon with so many meals. The mental recovery, though, is the hardest part. Fits of hysterical giggles alternated with outbursts of frustration and homesickness. Progress for Carly is measured by the end game, and her ultimate goal was to get home as quickly as possible; any hindrance to that goal was met unwillingly.

Bruins, Patriots and more
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Over the next 48 hours, she met David Krejci and Dennis Seidenberg of the Boston Bruins, had her teddy bear (named Malcolm Butler, after the Patriots’ hero of the Super Bowl) signed by the actual Malcolm Butler, and received clearance to go home.

The night we got home, we sat on the couch eating pancakes and having a Netflix marathon, while Carly scrolled through a week’s worth of get-well-wishes from friends and family. She spent days detailing goals for the next 12 seasons of track. One morning at 4 a.m., my mom gave her a Mohawk haircut. A few days later, an envelope arrived from Patriots’ star quarterback Tom Brady, containing a photo with his own get-well-wishes scrawled over his jersey letters. Within a week, she returned to school, rocking a buzz cut and the kind of confidence that can only be achieved when you’ve fought death head-on (literally) and won.

Eight weeks later, she’s back in school full-time. She read the entire medical study her surgeons published on AVMs and wrote a science presentation. She’s been cleared to begin running—limited to no more than four miles per day, to her chagrin—and hopes to return to competing by the end of April. There are definitely still challenges: she wants to do more, see questionably rated movies with her friends and be alone sometimes. But she’s a teenager; we could have counted on these issues regardless of brain surgery.

Now, Carly has aspirations to be a neurosurgeon. We are so thankful and lucky to have such a vibrant, intelligent and beautiful person in our lives. She’s healthy; she’s incredible. She’s going to be fine.

About Carly and her siblings:

Carly’s sister Caitlyn is 21 years old, a senior at Bridgewater State University majoring in English education. She would like to be a high school teacher or college professor. Carly and Caitlyn love singing, movie marathons, dance parties and devouring anything Harry Potter or Disney. Her brother Joseph is 20 years old, a sophomore at UMass Amherst majoring in finance. Carly and Joe enjoy being outside playing a number of sports—especially basketball and Frisbee—as well as any indoor competition, like knee hockey, Nerf gun wars and poker.

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