Wildcat stages rally in game of life

Serious brain injury from high school can't keep Suitos off field
2012-04-22T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T16:15:49Z Wildcat stages rally in game of lifePatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 22, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Frogs danced through the air, and Chelsea Suitos smiled. Look, she told her sister on the phone, one was threatening to poop above Mommy's head.

The 16-year-old's CT scan had come back fine, hours after a line drive hit her helmet during a softball game March 10, 2009. But she and her mother, a nurse, sat in the hospital, not convinced, until they were, horrifyingly, proven correct by the hallucinations.

By the time Chelsea woke up the next morning, still wearing her softball pants and socks, she knew only one person - Mommy. Not her sister, whom she spoke with the night before.

Not her father or her little brothers or her teammates or her friends.

Her speech was slowed and slurred, and she limped like a stroke patient.

She didn't know how to use the toilet, or count to 10.

Doctors would later liken her brain injury, a severe concussion with amnesia, to shaken-baby syndrome.

That morning, Chelsea, who three years later has become the Arizona Wildcats' starting right fielder, appeared to be just that.

"She was like a 2-year-old," her mother, Dyan, said.

16 years of memory erased

The thud on the school-issued helmet was firm and deafening, like a rock chucked at a shed.

Chelsea had taken a lead off third base after the fourth-inning pitch was thrown to her Elk Grove (Calif.) High School teammate. The ball was ripped foul down the third-base line, hitting Chelsea's helmet an inch behind her right temple.

A halo formed around where the ball had left an indentation on the helmet.

Chelsea didn't even fall down. She smirked.

After a consultation with her coach, Chelsea, tough and stubborn, stayed in the game.

"I always described her, growing up, as a pit bull with a raw piece of beef," Dyan said.

Chelsea struggled at shortstop, and was moved to the outfield. When the game ended, she wandered around. She didn't know the date. Her eyes looked empty.

Dyan took her daughter to her Sacramento hospital, where a CT scan came back negative and doctors found no sign of the brain bleeding.

When she started reaching for invisible frogs, Chelsea, whose brain was swelling, was moved across town to a hospital that treated juveniles.

A neurologist told Dyan her daughter likely wouldn't have permanent damage, which gave the family hope.

But the straight-A student still didn't recognize visitors. Her first breakfast was scrambled eggs with ketchup. She didn't recognize it.

"Mom-my," she said. "Do … I … like … this?"

As therapy, she used crayons to draw pictures for teammates to put in their pockets during games.

She put an "EG" on her coach's hat, even though she didn't remember her school's name was Elk Grove. She drew her pregnant assistant coach with a bulging stomach, a memory buried deep, somewhere.

"She lost the entire 16 years of her memory," Dyan said. "When I asked how old she was, she held up five fingers. Why did she think she was 5? She had five fingers."

Three days into her stay, her father, Jeff, watched Chelsea limp up a handicap ramp. When she reached the top, she screamed with revelation, "That's my dad!"

"That's when I started remembering things," Chelsea said.

The next day, she texted her sister, Megan, who was playing softball at Boise State: "I remember you! I remember you!"

When the Arizona Wildcats - to whom Chelsea had verbally committed - called, Dyan wouldn't put Chelsea on the phone. She didn't want them to hear her daughter's slowed speech.

Memory, Migraines, rage

During six days at an inpatient rehab center in nearby Roseville, Chelsea relearned how to walk and shower and talk clearly. She pranked the grandmother nearby by removing Arizona State logos from her door.

Friends came by, reintroducing themselves, and showed Chelsea photos of her at the junior prom the week before.

She returned home. Her mom took three months off work and put her on a home-school program.

But when Chelsea took the dog on a walk, she got lost. She didn't know left from right.

She couldn't sing the ABCs. She couldn't spell, but, somehow, could text-message.

"It was as though someone took all that long-term," Chelsea said, "and wiped it out."

She had daily migraines and naps. Chelsea took nine pills a day, everything from seizure-prevention meds to anti-depressants to pain relievers.

Most of her memory returned. At the end of spring, she scored well enough on the SAT for UA admittance.

Like many patients with traumatic brain injuries, she has struggled with fits of rage. She caused $700 of damage by busting three doors and two walls of her mother's house.

"My brothers would tell me a joke," she said. "If I didn't think it was funny, I put a hole through their door."

UA stood by her

Chelsea returned to Elk Grove for her senior year and was cleared to play softball.

When she visited Tucson that year, UA coach Mike Candrea told Chelsea he would honor her scholarship, even if she wasn't able to play.

She signed a national letter of intent.

"We're indebted to that man and his staff," Jeff Suitos said.

It was the "right thing to do," said Candrea, who dealt with former catcher Stacie Chambers' brain injury.

"I knew there was a lot of stress going through them, thinking her dream couldn't come true," he said. "Or that she would let us down."

She hasn't.

Chelsea, 19, was slated to be the Wildcats' everyday shortstop last year before tearing the labrum in her right shoulder a week before the season.

"I kinda felt like I was cursed," she said. "But being out was kind of a blessing."

She sat out the season, and moved to the starting right field spot this year, in part because her shoulder is at about 80 percent strength.

"It takes a really strong desire to play," said roommate Brigette Del Ponte, "to go through what she's been through."

Thanks to the team's vision-therapy program, the redshirt freshman - whose .331 batting average is third-best on the team - sees the ball as well as she has since the accident pooled fluid behind her left eye.

Chelsea, who wants to work for Nike's marketing department, has to study longer and struggles to focus. She puts in her iPhone earbuds with no sound to do homework, so no one bothers her.

Her lawsuit against the school district - which she said would not allow her to wear a more advanced helmet - is pending. Her high school team now wears the same high-tech helmets the Wildcats do.

She talks openly about her accident, in part to encourage helmet safety.

"I like the fact I overcame it, but I don't like thinking about how dark and scary a place that was," she said. "Thinking about it now, consciously, scares the hell out of me."

Up next

• What: Oregon at Arizona at Hillenbrand Stadium

• Friday: 7 p.m.

• Saturday : 7 p.m.

• Sunday: 11 a.m.

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