- Success Stories -

Back in the Game: Duke Pieper’s Success Story

|
Duke Pieper

A promising young hockey player survived life-changing brain surgery and is now sharing his message of hope with others.

My life goal has always been to win the NHL Stanley Cup. When I was 15 years old, I thought I had a genuine shot at making it happen. After spending two years at Shattuck-St. Mary’s — a boarding school in Faribault, Minn., renowned for its hockey program — I joined the Hill-Murray High School  varsity hockey team in St. Paul, Minn., as a freshman in 2008. The Pioneers were the defending state champions; talent scouts came to every game.

The day of my first varsity game in early December, something just didn’t feel right. During warmups, I fell on the ice. The puck didn’t come off my stick with its usual smoothness. I had a fogginess in my brain and a pressure in my head.

I tried to tell myself it was nerves, a reaction to my first big televised game against a powerhouse rival. But playing hockey was like putting on my shoes — it was almost innate. I knew something was wrong and told my coach to take me out of the game.

An MRI scan later revealed a noncancerous lesion in my brain stem — a cavernous hemangioma — which was leaking blood, putting pressure on my cranial nerves.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the doctors had given me a 5 percent chance of surviving the surgery to remove the lesion; without the procedure, my chances were lower still. Several hospitals wouldn’t consider operating because the procedure was so rare and dangerous.

But I’m a bit of a risk taker, and I felt like I had to take action. So my  parents and I found a neurosurgeon willing to perform the surgery. On December 8, 2008, I was wheeled into the operating room, and my family said their goodbyes. None of us knew if I would come out alive.

I don’t remember anything for about two months after that.

Life on the Edge

My parents told me that, in the days following my surgery, they thought I was going to be OK. Then I contracted multiple infections I just couldn’t kick.

One infection landed on my spinal cord, paralyzing my whole body. All I remember are dreams and hallucinations. I couldn’t move. I wasn’t really conscious. More than once, the doctors told my parents that they should consider letting me go.

I gradually started to regain sensation. The feeling started in my toes and slowly worked its way to my upper body, improving my speech and my breathing. I was waking up.

Even though it had been months, it seemed like just yesterday that I could do a 200-pound squat in the weight room. Now I could barely lift my feet.

New Goals

When I finally left the hospital nine months after my first surgery, I was evaluated at a fourth-grade academic level. I could barely color a picture inside the lines, and I was walking about 10 steps at a time. My goal was to be a regular person, and to graduate on time, in the spring of 2012.

It wasn’t as simple as going back to school and studying hard. I was still battling the infection, so I had to be on IV antibiotics. Between that and my rehabilitation challenges, I was homebound for 18 months.

Coming home was good for me, though. In the hospital, I’d spent most days in bed. Now, I was forced to get up and walk to the kitchen or the bathroom. Progress came slowly, with incremental steps. I started walking down the driveway, then coming back. After three weeks, I could walk around the block.

The therapy was almost constant: physical therapy, occupational therapy, medical appointments, practicing basic motor skills around the house. School took a backseat while I got back on my feet. Gradually, we incorporated academic work: Both the school district where my family lives and Hill-Murray sent tutors and teachers to my house. I’d study for an hour here, two hours there.

I had been mostly confined to the ICU during my hospital stay, which meant only my family could visit. At home, I was so focused on getting back to normal that I was still pretty isolated. My friends sent cards and videos to stay in touch, but I still felt detached from my former life.

Returning to school was a shock. I had to redefine myself — and accept the new person I had become. I had to set new goals. It’s hard to do that in any circumstance; in high school it’s almost impossible.

I didn’t know how to approach my old friends and reconnect. Most of them didn’t really know what to say or do around me. And on top of it all, I felt sad and angry about losing hockey — my whole life had revolved around it.

I eventually made some new friends, and I stopped dreading days at school. With time, my social and educational pursuits fell into place: I graduated on time. I got my driver’s license on my first try.

In January 2010, the Minnesota Wild asked me to be the eighth person ever to drop the ceremonial puck before a game. I’d been trying not to think too much about losing that part of my life, but out there on the ice that night, something clicked: I wanted to get back into the game somehow.

I got my chance when I enrolled at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in the fall of 2012. The new hockey coach was revitalizing the program, and I was named a student-coach. Now I can review game films, design strategies, and participate in practices. I even get to tie on my skates a bit.

Reaching Out

I’ve learned that I have to keep an open mind: You really never know how something is going to turn out.

I used to be a quiet, introverted person. During my time in the hospital, I realized there were a lot of people facing obstacles like I was. If I couldn’t play hockey, then maybe I could do something to help others.

So I decided to tell my story, partnering with author Jim Bruton to write a book, I’m Alive: Courage, Hope, and a Miracle. I wanted to offer some perspective and coping techniques to people facing a life-altering moment.

I used to keep to myself; now I share all the details of my experience and how I worked through it in hopes that I can help someone else who’s dealing with a tough situation.

In a way, I believe this happened for a reason. It’s changed who I am, but not what I want: I still dream of winning the Stanley Cup. If I can’t hoist it as a player, I’m going to do it as a coach. Just watch.

Leave a Comment