Out of a coma and back on her feet, Sara Groenewegen vows to chase her Olympic dream

EPA/Orlando Barria

Sara Groenewegen felt fresh at the start of the summer, and then she contracted Legionnaires' disease and spent 10 days in a coma.

Canada's journey to the 2020 Olympics is just beginning on the softball field. After losing more than a week of her life while in a medically induced coma, Sara Groenewegen hopes that trip intersects with her own road to recovery.

While Canada missed out on the Olympic bid available in the recent WBSC World Championship in Japan and must go through a qualifying tournament next year, the team had one of its best summers in decades. It culminated with a bronze medal in Japan and a far more competitive exit against the host than during the bronze-medal runs in 2010 and 2016.

Groenewegen expected to be a big part of it. Born and raised in British Columbia, the former University of Minnesota All-American said she felt as fresh as she had in years when Canada began practice. A year removed from college, she wasn't coming directly off hundreds of innings in the circle but instead a season of studying the game as a graduate assistant at the University of Oklahoma. With Danielle Lawrie out of retirement and Jenna Caira developing, Canada looked like it had a pitching staff capable of breaking the stranglehold that Japan and the United States have on the top of the podium.

Instead, Groenewegen was diagnosed in July with Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia, and she remained in the hospital while the rest of the team went to Japan for the world championships.

Because an extended phone conversation still causes discomfort as she recovers at home, Groenewegen recounted the past three weeks with espnW via email.

Do you remember when you first began to feel you might be getting ill?

Groenewegen: There was a day in Irvine, California [at the International Cup the week before the Canada Cup], where I felt super nauseous and was throwing up. My trainer and I just assumed it was something I ate and we moved forward. My doctor at the hospital said I could have contracted the virus anytime between 2-10 days from my first symptoms, so it really is unknown when I ended up getting sick and where I was when it happened.

Can you describe the timeline and progression from those first symptoms?

Groenewegen: During the Canada Cup I was very nauseous, but I assumed that was because of my diabetes. My insulin pump broke the week of the Canada Cup and my blood sugars were all over the place. I then started getting back pain on that Thursday. I pitched in the game on Friday (July 20) and just felt off. I threw fine, didn't let up any runs, but something was just off. I remember telling teammates that I didn't feel like myself on the mound.

I then started developing a bad fever on Saturday and stayed home from the games. My trainer and I agreed that if I didn't feel better in the morning we would go to the doctor. Sunday morning came and the fever and back pain was really bad, so we went to the emergency room. I remember checking into the ER and that is it. My memory is very faint from that moment forward.

Did you already have family members who could be with you?

Groenewegen: I am lucky that this all happened while we were playing in the Canada Cup. I live five minutes away from the field. All of my family was able to come and see me and support me. It is scary to think that this could have happened while we were in Japan.

Were you conscious during the initial diagnosis? And did you know what the doctors were planning to do, as far as the medically induced coma?

Groenewegen: I do not remember anything after checking into the hospital. I am sure I was conscious during the diagnosis, but I do not remember. They first diagnosed me with a bladder infection, but turns out it was a lot more serious than that. I was in the Surrey Memorial Hospital for two days consciously, and then the doctors put me on an ECMO machine to oxygenate my blood because my lungs were not able to due to the pneumonia that I had.

The doctors airlifted this machine from the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster -- airlifted this machine for the first time ever -- and hooked me up to it, as well as a ventilator, tube feeding, and about 10 bags of medications going into my body via IV and lines. My sister showed me a picture and it was rather disturbing to see myself like that. Apparently the people who visited me had to scrub in and wear masks and gloves because they had not figured out what was completely wrong with me yet.

I then was taken to the ICU at Royal Columbian and was in the coma until the doctors felt like I could breathe on my own. Like I said, my memory is completely shot from this whole experience, which is probably a good thing.

Was there fear at this point or was pain the dominant experience?

Groenewegen: Going to the hospital, I knew it could be something serious. But I figured I would be out of the hospital in a couple days and able to travel with the team to Japan. Coming out of my coma, I was extremely sad to find out I pretty much lost two weeks of my life, and the chance to represent my country to try to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

Was it explained to you before or after why they needed to keep you in a medically induced coma for 10 days?

Groenewegen: My lungs were unable to oxygenate blood on their own, so I was hooked up to the ECMO machine to help circulate my blood. This might be rather graphic, but the line for this machine was the size of a garden hose coming out of my neck. I will most likely have a large scar on my neck.

So you have zero recollection of those 10 days?

Groenewegen: Being in a coma was extremely strange. I felt like I was living but through a dream the entire time. I came out of my coma and was convinced that some strange things happened to me and was telling my family about it. They later told me the things I said and there was no possible way that those things happened.

What do you remember about that process of, essentially, coming back into the world?

Groenewegen: I remember waking up and being extremely thirsty, but the process of it all happening is pretty spotty. There are things that I remember very clearly, and then there are moments that blend together. I mainly remember through the stories that my family has told me. It took me a couple days off my medication to be completely coherent and myself. I know I was a bit of a handful to deal with coming out of the coma as all the medications I was on completely affected my personality and personal awareness.

It also took me a long time to be able to stand and walk again. The first day I was out of my coma, the nurses tried to get me to stand. I had to be assisted up to hold the walker, and was able to stand for about 10 seconds. I then was placed in a chair for about 10 minutes and my back couldn't handle it anymore so I went back to bed. The next day I was able to stand for a bit longer and I even tried walking a little but got too light-headed and had to lay back down. At that point I knew that this recovery was going to be a struggle and going to be emotional.

If you made a pie chart of all your possible emotions -- fear, confusion, frustration, anything else -- which ones were you feeling the most in those first days out of the coma?

Groenewegen: I know I was super upset at the fact that I was not in Japan, but I think the biggest emotion was confusion. The "why me" and why didn't anyone else on the team get sick? The "how and when did this happen?" Those are questions that we will never be able to answer unfortunately, but I felt super singled-out and disappointed. I was enjoying my summer with my team and would have done anything to get on the field with my team, but couldn't even stand up on my own.

I was also humiliated. All week I had been getting taken care of by people who are pretty much my age. Getting bathed by them, getting them to help me walk again. I am 23. I should be able to do those things on my own. Not being able to do the little things like that made me appreciate each day of health I have been given and to not take that for granted in the future.

Are you free of the Legionella bacteria? Is it a matter of your body recovering from the trauma?

Groenewegen: I am no longer taking antibiotics, however I am taking blood thinners because I have a blood clot in my leg and my lung. The hematologist said the clots are most likely from the ECMO machine. I know that people usually take months to fully recover from Legionnaires' disease, however my doctor kept stating that I am young and was healthy before I got the disease, so I would recover a lot faster than the average person who is diagnosed with it.

What are the next steps for recovery?

Groenewegen: I was sent home from the hospital [the first week of August], and the next steps are to just relax and try to get moving more and more every day. I am supposed to just take it slow and regain my energy and my motivation day by day. Some days have been better than others, but that is going to happen. I know that I will not be able to be fully active (biking, running, lifting, rowing etc.) for a long time -- the end of September I am hoping, but I am just trying to take it day by day.

What stood out to you about the response from the softball community?

Groenewegen: I honestly was not expecting the outpour of support. I know that a lot of people were wondering what was going on -- even my close friends had no answers to where I was and how I was doing. I did not have my phone on me for two weeks.

To have all of those people reach out was overwhelming. I know that the softball community is small, but to see people reach out the way they did was a reminder that people really do genuinely care. Softball is just a game in the grand scheme of life, and this was a reminder that health and wellness come before the fact that we compete against each other. I am thankful for the support, and all the thoughts and prayers. I feel like it has made a difference and it has made me feel that I am not alone.

Have you thought about/worried about playing softball again? Or does softball get pushed to the side in your own mind?

Groenewegen: It is funny that you mention this, because softball was my first thought. I came out of my coma and one of the first things I said to my sister was "I think we need to call [Team Canada coach Mark Smith] and tell him I can't make the flight." I clearly didn't know how long I was in a coma because the team was already in Japan playing exhibition games.

I think it is going to take an extreme amount of dedication and sacrifice to get back to where I was before I got sick, but that is what my entire softball career has been comprised of, so that doesn't scare me. I want to play again, and I am going to play again. I just need to remind myself that it is going to take time.

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