Storytime: How Keeping My Head Up Saved Me from Paralysis

Although I am only 19 years old, most days I feel like I have the back of an 80-year-old. Getting shooting pains in my lower back has been a prevalent issue in my life for the past five years. And no, this is not from having a weird back infection or disease; rather, it’s a result of getting checked from behind into the boards during a hockey game back in junior high. 


When telling this story to people I have met in college, their first question usually is, “You played hockey?” For whatever reason, the emphasis put on “you” in that question always upsets me because yes, I did play hockey. Taking a look at me on a normal day, I don’t really fit the stereotype of a hockey player, but I promise at one point, I did. Anyway, back to the story.


I remember that my team was at a tournament in Mound, which is about 30 minutes from our home rink in Maple Grove, Minnesota. The tensions were high as always during tournaments and this game was no different. I remember players from the opposing team taking unnecessary and lazy penalties against us because we were winning the game. 


During the last period, we knew that we were going to win, but I was definitely on edge because I had two goals and wanted to make it a hattrick by getting another. With about five minutes left, I circled from the inside of my team’s blue line-up to center ice behind the other team’s defense and called for the puck. My teammate had the intention of passing it to me, but it turned into more of an icing, so I was left racing against a defenseman. I was ecstatic because I could feel myself leaving this girl in the dust and I knew I would have a great scoring opportunity. The puck ended up going to the left of the net, and right as my stick was about to touch it, I felt my whole body slam against the boards. A shooting pain went up my back, and my face felt oddly numb. 


When playing sports, I never wanted to create a scene, so immediately after falling, I tried to stand. I quickly learned I was unable to support my weight so I fell right back down. 


The referee had blown his whistle, signaling a penalty. The girl had gotten a 10-minute major and was not allowed to play in the next game of the tournament. 


After I made my way back to the bench, I remember sitting and feeling a strong ache on my chin. I couldn’t feel the chin strap on my helmet against my face like I normally could, but that wasn’t something that would stop me from going back on the ice. Though I was dizzy, my coach put me back into the game and I almost scored the hattrick I so badly wanted. After the game, I was off-balanced and I began to cry, which is the last thing that I wanted to happen. 


My teammates helped me take off my gear but left my helmet for last, which I was not used to. After struggling to get all my gear off, I unstrapped my helmet, and my whole team simultaneously gasped at what they saw. I didn’t know what they were looking at until the locker room mom told me I had a huge cut in my chin. I was overwhelmed and began to cry again, telling everyone in the room how sorry I was for being dramatic.


I walked out of the locker room to find my dad, and I remember seeing the girl that hit me give me a side-eyed glare. How could she look at me with a giant gash on my face and not feel any remorse? I don’t remember much about my first interaction with my dad, but I do know that he was beside himself that my coaches had put me back in the game after the hit I endured. 


On our way home, he told me that we had to go to the hospital to get stitches on my chin, and I had never been so scared. Because I had never been to a hospital, I was jumping to conclusions about what was going to happen. Even though I was terrified, I didn’t think it could top how my mom was feeling. She wasn’t at the game, so my dad had to call her to let her know what had happened. I remember her being on Bluetooth in the car freaking out and making sure I was all right.


It wasn’t until I was laying horizontally on a hospital bed with a doctor standing over me stitching my face back together when I realized how lucky I was. 


When anyone starts playing hockey, one of the first things a coach tells you is that if you ever go hard into the boards you must keep your head up. If your head is down, you could get paralyzed from the neck down. 


I remember the doctor telling me that if I would have had my head down one inch, there would have been a high chance I could have been paralyzed. 


Though I went to the hospital for my chin, that pain was temporary and is no longer in my life. I am left with a scar, but it no longer aches. Rather, my constant back pain acts as a daily reminder of what almost was a tragic accident. Writing about this now, I am realizing that I should be grateful that the only pain I have left from that game is the inconvenience of sometimes not being able to stand for long periods of time and having trouble halfway through long tempo runs. 


I have been using the fact that I’ve almost been paralyzed in basically every “two truths and a lie” game I have played since I was 14. Only now, five years later, have I realized that this experience was not just something meant for a game. I have learned my privilege of being able to move freely without any help, and that the course of my life can change any minute. I just need to remember to keep my head up.