Duke's McDonald returns to field after brain surgery

Christie McDonald lost her best friend to a brain tumor -- only to be diagnosed with one six years later. But the Duke sophomore survived surgery to return to the soccer field, writes Graham Hays.

Updated: November 2, 2006, 12:58 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Christie McDonald isn't sure what she wants to do with her future. Like any number of her classmates, the Duke sophomore isn't sure what major she'll settle on or which career path she'll follow. What she does know is that the two seasons she has left as a member of the women's soccer team are a gift she's not about to waste.

Christie McDonald
Max TurnerChristie McDonald is back on the soccer field after a harrowing bout with a brain tumor.
McDonald has seen the other side; seen a brain tumor steal her best friend's life and seen her own future suddenly reduced to a series of question marks upon learning last spring that she, too, had a tumor in her brain.

And perhaps knowing how quickly things can end is part of the reason she now chooses to dwell on something other than the past.

To be precise, McDonald will tell you she has two full seasons and the rest of this season remaining in her college career. And despite a roller-coaster season for the Blue Devils, plenty of time remains to make something of all the one-goal losses, injuries and disappointments of the last two months.

"It's been an unbelievably frustrating season. I mean, I don't think we can put into words what has happened to us," McDonald said. "But I would not want to go through this with any other team. I still believe this is the most amazing team I've ever played for. I love them, and we've stayed really close through all of this.

"We're going to get through this. We're ready to play, we're ready to finish up the season and finish out strong."

A few days after saying that, McDonald and her teammates celebrated Senior Day in Durham with a 3-1 win against No. 3 Florida State, a win that did wonders for the team's NCAA Tournament profile. All of a sudden, an 8-6-2 record doesn't look all that bad in the rough and tumble ACC, and the upcoming conference tournament possesses wonderful possibilities for redemption.

Clearly, that's the adversity on McDonald's mind right now, but it's still cause for a double take when you realize that in talking about "getting through this," she's talking about a 4-3 loss to Kansas or a 0-0 tie against Maryland. Five months ago, McDonald woke up in a Los Angeles hospital, unable to stand up and knowing she would never hear again out of one ear.

And knowing that was the lucky outcome.

A year ago, McDonald's freshman season began with a splash, highlighted by her first career goal to beat UNC-Greensboro in double-overtime. College soccer was everything she had hoped it would be, validation for choosing a route she knew would require everything she had.

"I actually did not make the decision that I wanted to play in college until my sophomore year in high school, because I can't do things halfway," McDonald said.

But as the fall progressed, she began to notice occasional uncontrollable tremors in her left foot, brief episodes that puzzled her and everyone who knew of the condition.

"I could still play on it, so it never really affected me, like my game," McDonald said. "And it wasn't painful. I mean, it only happened a few times, so it's not like it was an everyday occurrence that I constantly had to think about."

At the time, nobody made any connection between those tremors and other incidents that in hindsight seemed to offer the kind of clues usually found only in television detective shows and bad mystery novels. Caught in the moment and with McDonald still logging heavy and effective minutes on the field, warning signs, like her occasional loss of balance, became a source of levity during the grind of a season.

"I always got made fun of last year for being on the ground a lot," McDonald admitted with a rueful laugh. "I know one time in weight lifting we were doing lunges with pretty heavy weight on our backs, and I ended up falling down and getting some nice bruises actually. So there were definitely times where it makes sense now, but they were never big enough signs where I thought something was wrong at the time."

Finally, in April, doctors still flummoxed by McDonald's foot symptoms ordered an MRI on her brain, mostly in an effort to rule out the possibility of brain lesions. McDonald recalled she wasn't particularly worried about the tests, mostly because nobody involved in the process, including the doctor, seemed to think it was anything other than a precaution.

So it wasn't until she received an early-morning phone call soon after the test, asking her to come in for a meeting, that she started to worry. And to think about Jessica.

McDonald's best friend growing up, Jessica was diagnosed with a brain tumor in fifth grade. She passed away when both girls were in seventh grade.

"She was getting migraines a lot," McDonald said. "And there was one day at soccer -- she was on my team -- she was going to get an MRI and we all got in a prayer and prayed for her to make sure she was OK. And I remember thinking -- I mean, I didn't understand that there could have been something wrong with her. The fact that she could have a brain tumor, I never understood that. My dad had to sit me down when we found out and explain it to me.

"I think it's really hard to think, you never think that someone that young could potentially not live. She was like my role model. I really looked up to her, so that was really hard for me."

Six years after her friend's death, McDonald's thoughts understandably turned to her soon after getting the call to come in for a meeting about her own MRI.

Referring to a conversation with a friend as she prepared for the meeting at the hospital, McDonald said, "I was like, 'Nothing is wrong with me, I know, but my best friend died when I was younger of a brain tumor.' And that was such a shock to me that having a brain tumor always kind of worried me. And a few hours later, I found that's what I had."

As it turned out, clumsiness had nothing to do with McDonald's balance problems; it was acoustic neuroma. A tumor that affects the vestibulocochlear nerve in the inner ear responsible for hearing and balance functions, acoustic neuroma is noncancerous, but can be life-threatening if allowed to grow to a point where it presses on the brain stem.

Stunned by the diagnosis, McDonald leaned on her family away from home to get through the initial shock. Trainer Elizabeth Zannolli, who actually broke the news of the tests results to her, was by her side the entire day. And after tearfully telling the team why she would no longer be participating in spring practice, McDonald said she spent that first night on a futon with two of her best friends, huddling together for emotional strength.

Surgery was quickly scheduled, with the McDonald family relocating to Los Angeles for several weeks in pursuit of the best surgeons possible. Initially, the medical staff presented McDonald with two options for the procedure, one of which would offer the potential to save hearing function in the affected ear. But the day before the surgery, tests revealed that the size and location of McDonald's tumor didn't allow for that procedure.

Surprisingly, McDonald didn't mind the news that she would lose hearing in the ear.

"I was like, 'Nothing is wrong with me, I know, but my best friend died when I was younger of a brain tumor.' And that was such a shock to me that having a brain tumor always kind of worried me. And a few hours later, I found that's what I had."
-- Christie McDonald

"Actually, that was such a relief for me, for them to make the decision and me not to be a part of it," McDonald said. "Because that was the most stressful part before the surgery, was me having to decide which surgery I wanted. So it was actually really nice that they both didn't want to do the other surgery."

After recovering at home for about a month (which she described as "plenty" of home time), McDonald returned to Duke for a summer session, as much in an effort to get ready for the upcoming season as make up for lost time. Starting essentially from scratch as her body adjusted to regulating balance with the mechanisms in her functioning inner ear, she found the rehabilitation more troublesome than the hearing loss.

"The balance, obviously, I couldn't walk right after my surgery, so that definitely stood out, even more so than the hearing," McDonald said. "And that's something I had to work on a lot, and something I still have to continue to work on and will have to continue to work on, at least as long as I play soccer.

"The hearing, it's not that bad. It's more of a nuisance, I would say, than anything else. I mean, I can't tell locationally where things are coming from -- my cell phone rings, I'm all over the place, because I have no idea where the noise is coming from, and things like that."

Despite the alternating ups and downs associated with simultaneously making progress and realizing you still aren't where you were, McDonald's rehabilitation went remarkably well. In fact, she was amazed at how much better her conditioning was by the time preseason training started than it had been when she arrived as a freshman. A summer of intense physical work had left her in perhaps the best shape of her life.

And when Duke opened its regular season against St. Louis on Aug. 25, McDonald was in the starting lineup, not as a token gesture but as coach Robbie Church's best option. She's remained there ever since.

"I felt like I was in the starting lineup not because my coaches felt sorry for me and wanted to reward me for my hard work, but because I actually deserved to be in it," McDonald said.

Earning a place on the field with her teammates sounds like the most important thing in McDonald's world view right now. She's earned that much. In learning firsthand how quickly the things that matter most can be taken away, she's gained perspective on making the most of the present.

Soon enough, that present won't include soccer, but she can figure that out when it gets here. She has time.

"I think I didn't really appreciate how little time I have left playing soccer, because it has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember," McDonald said. "When the doctors told me I might not ever be able to play again, that was definitely a shocker. I don't have that much time left [in college], and I just want to enjoy it as much as I can. It's one of my passions."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.