Faceoff With An Illness

May 04, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

Lexington, Va. -- Nicole Ripken walked off the field with her head bowed, obviously still shaken by Washington & Lee's 12-6 loss to Lynchburg in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference semifinal.

Ripken was shut out for the first time this season.

"To come this far, as much as this team had to overcome this season, and then to lose is horrible," said Ripken, 20, a junior attackman. "It's been a long battle."

Then Ripken pauses for a moment.

"But then again, I've already won the game. I'm alive."

Not simply alive.

Ripken, a third cousin of Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, is hurling laser-like shots again. Doing somersaults and landing on her head. Trading a few elbows, dodging her way to the goal.

"And just think, four months ago I was wondering if I was going to play lacrosse again," said Nicole Ripken, who underwent surgery in early January to remove a non-malignant brain tumor. "I was wondering if I was going to ever get married or have kids. Complete school? Play lacrosse again? I thought I had cancer and was going to die."

Ripken's medical nightmare began Dec. 19, just two days after returning to her Lutherville home for Christmas break. She began having severe headaches; the worst pain was at the back of her head, just above her neck. Despite medical treatment, the pain continued for two weeks. Her mother, Carol, decided to get a second medical opinion.

"We had taken her to one doctor, and he thought it was a stress migraine, so he loaded her up on muscle relaxers and painkillers," said Carol Ripken. "She practically slept all the time and was pretty much out of it. That's when I just said enough is enough."

A second doctor scheduled a CT scan for Jan. 1 at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "New Year's Day just kind of went by us," said Nicole Ripken. "I remember the nurse coming in with panic on her face. She saw something, but had no idea what it was. They sent me to get an MRI [magnetic resonance imaging exam], which was a three-minute car ride away.

"It was the longest three minutes of my life."

According to Dr. Rafael Tamargo, the MRI revealed Ripken had a brain tumor, or a mass of blood vessels that for some reason were swelling.

Ripken underwent six hours of surgery on Jan. 6 to remove an orange-size tumor from her cerebellum. It was benign, and Tamargo declared the operation a success.

Ripken just wanted to get back on the lacrosse field.

Before surgery, Ripken asked about the likelihood of her playing lacrosse again. "There was no guarantee," she said. "I just lost it, started bawling and screaming. Lacrosse was my favorite sport, and there was a chance it was going to be taken away. I was determined to come back."

Tamargo said: "Lacrosse was her No. 1 concern from the beginning, but if she hadn't come in when she did, there might have been some irreversible neurological damage."

Not long after surgery, Ripken assessed her athletic condition: "By the time I got home [seven days after surgery], I had lost 17 pounds," said Ripken. "I had no muscles in my legs. I remember looking at my backside in the mirror and saying this was ridiculous. I freaked."

Nearly two weeks post-surgery, Ripken began riding an exercise bike. A week later, she was running. She returned to school by mid-February.

"That was a very exciting time, and the girls really rallied around her," said her Washington & Lee coach, Jan Hathorn.

"She had gotten in shape by herself, and that was important to her. After seeing her practice, I could tell she was capable of playing. I always held Nicole in high esteem, but it's a lot deeper now."

There was only one requirement before Ripken could play her first game -- she had to protect her head. So she dons a tae kwon do helmet to cover the 8-inch, S-shaped scar below her right ear. Her hair has grown over the cut, but the area is still soft.

Headgear hasn't slowed her down.

Ripken started her first game on April 11 against Sweet Briar after only three practices. She scored six goals. Despite missing half the season, Ripken is the team's third-leading scorer, with 19 goals and six assists in eight games.

Her style of play hasn't changed.

"On the field, I'm not afraid," said Ripken, a former star at St. Paul's School for Girls. "During the first game, I did a somersault and ended up banging my head on the ground. It didn't hurt but it kind of scared me at first. I think that's when I got the fear out."

Ripken walks around in a T-shirt that says "Pain is Temporary." Her comeback story is starting to spread, in part because her last name is Ripken, and she's from the Baltimore area.

"I've never met Cal Jr. before or even talked to him," said Nicole Ripken, whose grandfather, Wesley, is a second cousin of Cal Ripken Sr. "All I know is that he plays baseball. People call my house and ask for him.

"I go into a restaurant and they say, 'Table for Ripken.' Everybody stops until I stroll in, and they say, 'Oh, it's just you.' "

Nicole Ripken just smiles, something she does often these days. She's an honor-roll student with a 3.5 grade-point average and ambitions of going to law school.

She loves Italian and Mexican food, sitting under trees, and listening to Jimi Hendrix and Pearl Jam. All things others might take for granted, but not Ripken. She has to undergo an MRI every six months for the next five years.

"There's always a chance one cell got through, and it scares me," said Ripken. "After what I went through, I appreciate everything much more.

"Something like this makes you see things with a totally different

perspective. It's amazing, really."

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