Lacrosse has been a part of my life since before I can remember. I have two sisters who have won state championships in high school, one who went on to play Division One lacrosse for Boston College and another who played for Northwestern where she won a National Title. I have a father who played lacrosse at Springfield and UCLA and went on to help introduce a boys lacrosse team to Westwood High School. My family eats, sleeps and breathes lacrosse. So when I was adopted by them from a very politically charged Romania in 1999, I was adopted into the sport too. I played my first season of organized lacrosse when I was seven years old, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The sport helped raise and shape me into an athlete, a teammate, a good sport, a competitor and most importantly it has taught me how to become a better person. When you get onto the field you put all your worries, struggles and needs away for those 40 minutes you’re playing. Lacrosse isn’t just a physical sport it’s an emotional and mental sport. The question isn’t just what kind of physical shape you are in but how you keep your emotions in check and what choices you make on the field. Some day not too far in the distance, lacrosse will come to an end for me but that doesn’t mean the lessons it has taught me will go away with it. Lacrosse has taught me that to be mentally ready for my next test, to be ready for anything life throws at me.
Last March, life threw something at me. After I started experiencing repeated excruciating pain in my head, doctors told me I was suffering from a rare neurological disorder called “cluster headaches.” Everyone grows up wanting to be special or different, it’s human nature. I always tried to be different but never did I ever imagine it would be like this. A cluster headache occurs in 1 out of every 1,000 people. I happen to be that 1. A cluster headache isn’t just a typical headache that is cured with an aspirin or rest and glass of water. A cluster headache is on a completely different level because it involves the trigeminal nerve, which is the largest cranial nerve and it’s located behind your eye. At 9:30 AM and then again at 9:30 PM in the fall and spring time solstice you will find me in my house rolling around in agony, often passing out because the pain is too intense. A cluster headache is something that is part of my circadian rhythm which is the reason why I get them at the times I do. They are also episodic, meaning I get them twice a year for about a total of two months each day twice a day. The 9:30 AM headache is especially inconvenient on school days, as I have to get dismissed after first or second block and return around fourth block because they are far too severe to have in public. No matter what, when 9:30 comes around my trigeminal nerve dilates which means it gets bigger than normal, and then the pain comes, whether I am ready or not.
Lacrosse is a physical game and getting slashed in the arm or getting hit by a bigger defenseman hurts, but they are nothing compared to a cluster headache. The pain is like no other. It feels like somebody is stabbing you behind your eye. Doctors say it is “the worst medical pain known to human-kind.” Worse than kidney stones, cancer pain, postherpetic neuralgia, and childbirth. My mother, Luanne Rich, is an OBGYN who has been delivering babies for years and deals with people in pain all the time. She has said she has never seen somebody in pain like this before. Despite this, doctors unfortunately have not found a clear indication on how to stop these headaches since they are so rare and they see so few cases of it. I have been to multiple hospitals seen multiple doctors and although doctors have helped me from a mental standpoint and helped me shorten the amount of time my headaches last, they have been unable to stop them.
As I said, these headaches will occur during the spring solstice which also happens to be right when lacrosse starts. Its very difficult to play lacrosse and have these headaches as they are incredibly draining and make it hard to focus on the sport when I know what is on the horizon. However, my family, teammates and coaches make up an excellent support group and they help me through it. The headaches have been brutal, but they have also helped shape me as an individual. From a mental standpoint I am very optimistic doctors will find a surgery that cures these headaches. There are many talented doctors working on this everyday and they are only getting closer. From a physical standpoint I feel if I can take these headaches twice a day why can’t I take a slash to my arm? Or why can’t I push myself to come out with a ground ball? I always work hard to become a better player because I hate when people say my sisters are better than me (Kidding. Kind of.) but these headaches have made me treasure –more than ever– each time I’m playing and it drives me to be better. Finally, from an emotional standpoint, lacrosse and my headaches have made me closer with my family and overall a better person. My family has been with me in hospital beds day and night by my side. I am who I am thanks to lacrosse and like it or not, thanks to these headaches. When lacrosse ends and when my headaches end I will thank them for who they have made me.