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Back from the brink.

Byline: Chris Hansen The Register-Guard

"Mom, I can't walk!"

Those words have haunted Ricki Cook since the morning they were first screamed from across the house by her daughter on April 16, 2015.

The day before, during a youth soccer game in Coos Bay, Samantha Cook had taken a vicious elbow to the head from an opposing player, and though she didn't lose consciousness, it was obvious to anyone who watched her wobble off the field that she had suffered a concussion.

For the 14-year-old eighth-grader from Eugene, it was her third sports-related concussion in about a year.

Her brain decided enough was enough.

It would take four frustrating, frightening months before Samantha was diagnosed with conversion disorder, a complex medical condition in which psychological stress manifests itself in physical ways not directly associated with her concussion.

For Cook, that meant paralysis, short-term memory loss, seizures and being confined to a wheelchair.

"I didn't think I'd ever really get back to being normal," she said.

On Tuesday, almost one year to the day from when Cook finally began walking on her own again, the sophomore midfielder will celebrate by taking the field for 10th-ranked North Eugene when they play at Springfield in a Midwestern League girls soccer game.

Cook has started every game this season for the Highlanders, who are contending for the league title, and with each passing day, she flashes more and more of the talent and skill that once made her one of the top youth players in the area.

"I don't think I'm fully back to being where I was two years ago," she said. "It's obviously way better, but I still feel like I haven't reached the potential that I can get to."

A devastating hit

Whether it was in soccer or basketball, Cook always excelled and was among the best players.

"I've coached her since she was little," North Eugene coach Brandy Wormdahl said, "and she was the next amazing midfielder coming, with her athleticism and the things she could do with the ball."

Ricki Cook said her daughter always played up one grade level, and sometimes as many as three grade levels, which is how the middle-schooler found herself in a U-18 game on the coast in the spring of 2015.

Samantha has no memory of the life-changing hit, though multiple eyewitness accounts say she had her head down going for the ball, when an opponent, a high school senior, came at her full speed and delivered a crushing blow.

The hit flattened Cook and earned a red card and ejection for the opposing player.

"I was on the ground, but I don't think I blacked out because I walked off the field," Cook said. "I was on the ground for a little bit, but I got back up."

Neither Ricki Cook nor her husband were at the game that day, but they got a call from the family that Samantha carpooled with to inform them of their daughter's injury.

"I was asked if we wanted them to take her to the hospital, that she was conscious and hadn't thrown up but it seemed she had a concussion again," said Ricki Cook, who added that Samantha had two concussions during the basketball season in 2014. "She came home and suffered the classic concussion signs. She was dizzy and tired and a little bit of blurred vision."

It would get worse the following morning.

"When she woke up, she was yelling for me, 'Mom, I can't walk!' " Ricki Cook said. "When she had come home she could walk fine, no wobble or anything, and then literally, she just couldn't walk."

The road back

For the next four months Samantha was treated as if she had a severe concussion. She saw multiple specialists, tried several different medications and did physical therapy.

In the meantime, her memory was shot - she still doesn't remember attending her middle school graduation ceremony in a wheelchair - she had debilitating headaches daily, her muscles were atrophying and she was getting bed sores from lying in the same position all day.

"It was just hard to see her in that state," said Wormdahl, who couldn't keep from crying as she recalled visits to see her player. "It was heart-wrenching."

It was more than that for Samantha, who struggled to understand why she wasn't getting better.

"Nobody knew what was wrong," she said. "That was the worst part. I didn't know what was wrong with me, so they didn't know how to fix me. Is this just going to be the rest of my life? Am I going to have to do this forever?"

Her parents had similar questions as they watched their once-vibrant daughter's daily battles with her new reality.

"Being handicapped when you're used to being one of the most active, most naturally gifted kids ... to have everything taken away from you, your world is just turned upside down," Ricki Cook said. "She was a kid that played sports six days a week and now she couldn't do anything."

And it wasn't getting any better.

For every minimal gain Samantha had during therapy, she would suffer a greater setback. The most severe came when she began to walk in a pool during water therapy - two months after her concussion.

"We came home that night and she had an over two-hour-long seizure," Ricki Cook said. "It was going on and on and she was contorting like she was in a horror movie, she felt like bees were stinging her, her eyes would roll into the back of her head."

Samantha had three more seizures that summer before her concussion specialist took a shot in the dark at an alternative diagnosis: conversion disorder, a condition nearly always triggered by a stressful event. Those suspicions were confirmed by a specialist at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland on Aug. 21 - 128 days after Samantha was first injured.

"She's had so many sports-related injuries, and for almost four years could never complete a full season of basketball or soccer," Ricki Cook said. "So she got this concussion at the soccer game, was fine when she came home, and then something in her brain during that night's sleep took over her body and shut it down and said, 'You're done.' It was like her subconscious protecting her.

"So every time we would go to therapy and she would make some kind of advancements or improvements, she would come home and have a seizure. Her getting better made her have a seizure."

With a diagnosis in hand, the family met with Samantha Cook's physical therapist, who was experienced in treating conversion disorder, to plot a course for recovery.

First and foremost was getting her ready for her freshman year of high school, which was weeks away from starting.

"We needed to make her life as normal as possible and just push her through that," Ricki Cook said.

The first plan was to get her out of the wheelchair. The goal was to have Samantha using only her walker by the first day of school.

"We needed to break through all these barriers," Ricki Cook said. "We were told to slowly start taking away the tools that had been given to help her get around in her daily life, like her wheelchair. So we had to set a goal and say, 'After this date, we're not using the wheelchair anymore.'

"I took the wheelchair to Goodwill and said, 'It's gone, you're not using it anymore.' We took the chair out of the shower. We didn't allow her to eat dinner in her bed, she could eat on the couch."

Samantha went to the first day of school using only her walker. By the end of September, the walker was gone.

Next, it was time to get her playing sports again.

Back on the field

In early October, Ricki Cook met with Wormdahl and asked if Samantha could join the soccer team, sit on the bench during games and be around the other players.

Even though Samantha rejected the idea at first, Wormdahl did not.

"Brandy gave her a full uniform, let her travel on the bus, let her do the warmups and stuff," Ricki Cook said. "And slowly, every day, she'd do a little bit more, and a little bit more, and she came home one day and said she had run all the way around the track. It wasn't full speed or anything, but she actually ran a lap around the track."

By basketball season, Samantha was cleared by her doctors for 100 percent participation, and she played on the junior varsity team as she retrained her feet and hands to work in conjunction with each other.

One month ago, she earned her spot in the starting lineup for the Highlanders' season opener in soccer.

"It's the best thing ever," Samantha said. "There's still things that are off. ... It takes time to get it back. Every game I feel like I'm getting stronger."

As good as she's been this season, Wormdahl suggested the best is yet to come for Samantha.

"It's amazing the progress she's made," Wormdahl said. "She still won't head the ball but she takes everything off the chest and gets in hard for every tackle. I don't ever see her hesitate. She's not a passive or soft player by any means.

"A year from now she's going to be a major impact player in the league. She's still sort of recovering from the injury and from losing that year."

Returning to sports didn't come without some trepidation from all involved. Wormdahl deemed Samantha off limits for contact with other players during practice, and Ricki Cook won't miss a single game anymore.

As for Samantha, she admitted that she was nervous the first time she returned to the field, "But I couldn't not play because it's really important to me to do something and sports is what I love."

Ricki Cook said she hears other parents questioning the decision to let Samantha play again, especially in this day and age of heightened concern over concussions and the long-term effects they have on the brain.

But Samantha Cook had two MRIs and three CT scans in 2015, and all of her doctors cleared her to play again.

"I just couldn't take away part of who she is," Ricki Cook said. "Sports has been her life and who she is. A lot of the parents I know talk ... But we let Sam be the judge of her body and what she does."

That doesn't mean Ricki Cook is numb to her daughter's medical history and the potential dangers that come with Samantha playing soccer again.

"Every game that she walks off the field not injured is a success," Ricki Cook said. "She'll say, 'I didn't score today,' and I'll say, 'You walked off the field. It's a good day.' "

Follow Chris on Twitter @chansen_RG. Email
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Title Annotation:Prep Girls Soccer
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 2, 2016
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