By Elizabeth Carey
Elizabeth Carey is a Denver, CO-based writer and editor. As an associate content producer at Run.com, she fuses her passions for journalism, health, fitness and the outdoors. @elizabethwcarey
Kelsey Lloyd couldn’t shake this feeling. In the midst of her junior year at Stanford University, after starting every game as right half back on the 2011 sixth-ranked Division I field hockey team and after taking her fall quarter final exams, she’d flown to Shavertown, Penn. At her family home, her mother Susan asked her to put the salad on the table, but Kelsey couldn’t.
As her father Thomas sat and talked with Kelsey’s boyfriend, who was meeting the Lloyds for the first time, Kelsey remembers feeling nervous. She wondered if she was just being incredibly awkward. “I went to the bathroom and splashed some water on my face and tried to pull it together,” she says. Returning to the table, she sat down next to her dad. Then, she says, “I stopped being able to speak and respond and was doing nonsensical things.”
Months prior, on a red clay court in the rural town of Vontovorona, 15 miles outside of Madagascar’s capital city, Kelsey volunteered for Yamuna, a non-governmental organization founded in 2000 that runs an orphanage for abandoned and poverty-stricken children. She spent seven weeks organizing what essentially became an 8-hour-a-day field hockey camp.
There, off the southeastern coast of Africa on the world’s fourth largest island, nearly 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank. That’s less than $1 a day. Amid Madagascar’s unique ecosystem, political turbulence, and dynamic health challenges, she fulfilled an internship requirement for her human biology major by applying what she called her most apparent expertise and passion: field hockey. When she proposed the program to Yamuna’s directors, she says, they were thrilled. They agreed that more than 100 children at the orphanage would be empowered by the health-related benefits of sport.
Like many teammates, Kelsey aspired to study abroad. In fact, current team captain Becky Dru, a senior from England who finished the 2011 season with a team-leading 16 goals, traveled with Kelsey. “What an incredible experience to travel somewhere and learn about the world,” says another teammate, Alessandra Moss, a former goalkeeper and 2011 graduate who now lives in New York, N.Y. But for Kelsey, she says, “Obviously the consequences were so unbelievably scary. In theory, it’s an amazing adventure.”
After nearly 24 hours of travel, Kelsey arrived at Yamuna’s doorstep. The orphanage sat between rice paddies, fields, and clusters of earth-tone homes, the same color as the red, dusty clay the Malagasy harvest to make bricks. She shook hands with her bosses and struggled to communicate with high school-level French. Few locals knew French as well as the Malagasy tongue. As she writes: “They ushered me to a small private room with a bunk and a breakfast table and said goodnight. Starving, exhausted, lonely, and terrified of the beetles on the walls, I questioned why I had ever travelled so far and wondered how I would ever survive the trip, let alone carry out my program.”
Her teammates, however, knew she would. Alysha Sekhon, a Stanford senior from Vancouver, Canada, knew Kelsey’d put her talent and leadership abilities to use. She leads by example, Alysha says, both on the field and off. “When she has the ball, no one can touch her, because she’s got this incredible skill,” Alysha says. “She can basically dribble around people like they’re cones—she’s so fluid.”
As the cultural shock wore off in Madagascar, the five-foot, nine-inch blonde Kelsey learned some Malagasy (“Isahy fotsy, Isahy be,” or “I am white, I am big,” to respond to gaping stares with humor, she says). She settled in to Yamuna’s routine. After a 4:30 a.m. wake up call and the children’s chores, Kelsey ate breakfast with the kids. Like most meals, this consisted of rice and rice water “tea.” On rare occasions, thin strips of Zebu beef or beans were served.
By 7 a.m., practice began on a dirt lot outside the orphanage’s gates. Without a single blade of grass, the lot was beaten flat by soccer-playing locals. Four groups of children — from the roughly 3- to 6-year-old “Les Plus Petites” to the 6- to 12-year-old boys and girls, “Les Garcons” and “Les Filles,” to the 12- to 18-year-old adolescents, “Les Ados” — went through a proper physical warm up, small stick skill tutorials, set play instruction, small games, and, eventually, scrimmaging. “Since organized athletics and sports equipment are generally unheard of in this region,” Kelsey writes, “the children were always very excited to select their stick and pinnies.” Even the adults caught field hockey fever. “The nurses, chefs, gardeners, and supervisors would all find their way to the field and jump into highly competitive adult scrimmages.”
As the games concluded, daylight waned. Red clay stained their hands and feet. Kelsey’s Patagonia trekking boots were caked with dirt, and eventually reduced to tatters. “Everyone helped prepare dinner on the outdoor stoves,” Kelsey writes. After eating rice for dinner and a banana for desert, the children when to bed. Then, Kelsey walked to the local university to attend English club meetings and help with language instruction.
Although she practiced her stick skills on such days, Kelsey also squeezed in other off-season training. In a safe back garden in sight of the orphanage, she completed sprint sets and agility drills from her coaches’ summer training packet. Baffled passersby would call to her: “Why are you doing that? You’re wasting calories. You’re going to have to buy more water!” That, she says, was something she never thought about—let alone rationing water, a commodity there. Growing up in the U.S., she says, “hydrate” is an athlete’s mantra.
Although Kelsey thought much of the precautionary pre-international travel requirements like shots were overkill, she drank bottled water, brushed her teeth with bottled water, and avoided meat, as she’d been instructed. “Everyone told me I was going to get severely ill when I was there, but I never did,” she says. Nor did her traveling partner.
Back on her home turf, after being unconscious for approximately five minutes, Kelsey woke up in an ambulance. “Did we eat?” she asked repeatedly, both confused and hungry.
At the local Geisinger Hospital near Scranton, doctors said she’d had a grand mal seizure. A cardiologist on call happened to be the parent of Kelsey’s club teammates, and he took great care to help the Lloyds navigate the emergency. Brain scans revealed an 8.3 by 6.3 mm mass surrounded by swelling in her left temporal lobe. The doctors wanted to operate immediately to get a biopsy. But the Lloyds wanted a second opinion. That night, they transferred her to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Traumatized from the seizure and heavily medicated, Kelsey faded in and out. There, a neurosurgeon reviewed her case, and prepped Kelsey for a high-risk surgery to remove the mass, whatever it was.
Samantha, Kelsey’s 28-year-old sister, made several calls. At University of Michigan that night, Kelsey’s high school friend Liesl Morris, who played field hockey with Kelsey at the Taft School, was studying for her last final exam when she heard from Sam. Immediately, Liesl, a team captain, called her own field hockey coach, who helped her work with an academic advisor and her professor to postpone the final. Liesl caught an early morning flight to Philly.
She’d been to hospitals before, to volunteer with her college team, but this was different. And scary. “To actually have to sit there and visit your friend, it gives you a new perspective—one that you’re not a fan of,” Liesl says.
When Liesl and other friends re-entered the room, the mood had changed. Thirty minutes before she would be wheeled into the operating room, Kelsey learned that the mass might not be a tumor. A neuro-radiologist had reviewed the scans again overnight, and suggested it could be a parasite. So the surgery was called off.
“I remember waking up and it was like worlds colliding,” Kelsey says, when she saw her friends and family assembled. From the Stanford goal keeper Ale Moss and her grandfather to her boyfriend Lucas Flosi and high school teammate Liesl Morris, her field hockey relationships pulled through. Plus, her sister’s former field hockey teammate, a medical resident at the University of Pennsylvania, pitched in as liaison. “So that’s kind of incredible,” Kelsey says.
But the hospital days and those that followed became a dark spot. The mass in the language center of her brain, as the neuro-radiologist noted, was likely a parasite picked up in Madagascar. Relatively common in some developing countries, parasites thrive in undercooked meat, contaminated water and soil—even in dust. “I could’ve breathed it in. I was blown away when they told me that because I tried to be so careful,” Kelsey says.
In the hospital, hers was the exciting case. In fact, she had the disease found to be the diagnosis on the first episode of the medical TV drama House. Doctors came to see her, a young American woman with a disease rare in a developed country. Although the budding epidemiologist Kelsey thought that was pretty cool, doctors were hard-pressed to give her a prognosis.
On powerful antiparasitic and anticonvulsant medications with side effects that disrupted her daily life, she was released. She waited to get more scans. By January, she returned to school two weeks into the term. Unable to study abroad in Florence during the winter, and unable to exercise (let alone lift anything more than five pounds) due to the high risks of the mass — seizures, brain swelling, brain bleeds — Kelsey again waited for more scans. The illness took a serious toll on her athletic career. She was unable to participate in winter training, and her participation in the spring was limited by the swelling in her brain and the central nervous system-depressing medications.
“Though it was heartbreaking to lose the opportunity to compete as a senior, I do not regret the time I spent in Madagascar; in fact, I cherish the experience for having taught me the real value in sport,” she writes. In fact, the trip has inspired her goal of going to medical school. Now a senior, she’s applying for post-baccalaureate premedical programs to complete the prerequisites. Her dream medical schools? UPenn, which she credits with saving her life, and Stanford, which she loves.
With a focus on epidemiology and public health, Kelsey aspires to return to Madagascar to drive a more impactful health initiative. “I wasn’t equipped to deal with that as a rising junior in college,” says Kelsey. But she does have fond memories of small victories. Like Ezra’s.
At the orphanage, children with learning and other disabilities faced social exclusion. An estimated 5 years old, Ezra was consistently dismissed as unimportant and hopeless, Kelsey says. “I felt extra protective of Ezra and made sure he got the same attention as all the others. While he was not a natural athlete, Ezra found comfort in the position of goalie, and his calm demeanor awarded him one day when he stopped a shot on the goal line. I will never forget the smile on his face when his teammates gathered around him, cheering and shouting his name,” she writes. On a level playing field, where everyone was a beginner, he excelled.
The mass has shrunk so it’s barely visible. It left scar tissue, which will increase Kelsey’s risk of seizures and could impair neurologic function. She takes precautions, but has weaned off the medications. “I can’t live my entire life in fear so I’m going to continue operating as a normal healthy human,” she says. “I could be symptom-free for the rest of my life.”