The pain started more than a year ago. It came at night when she tried to lay down in bed, but then would disappear during the day, and through it all Oliver Ames senior Erin Holmberg kept playing club and high school soccer, outdoor track, and basketball. A new pillow seemed to help take some of the pressure off her neck and allowed her to get some sleep, but gradually the pain increased and then it started lingering through the day or starting in early evening.
In December 2018, the pain became unbearable. Erin couldn’t sleep. She continued coming to school everyday because she didn’t want to miss basketball practices or games, but there was growing numbness in her right arm, in her back, and partially in her legs. It was becoming difficult to do not only the intricate tasks of a basketball player, but even to function in the classroom.
Doctors assumed that it was just a muscular problem and recommended physical therapy and stretching. It was only when the Holmbergs visited Boston Children’s Hospital that a low-grade glioma (a brain tumor that can sometimes grow in the spinal cord) was discovered in Erin’s neck.
“Obviously I was shocked and I didn’t know how to react,” Erin said. “The first thing I said to the nurse was, ‘Is this thing growing inside me?’ The pain was unbearable, so it was relieving that they found it and that the pain would finally go away if they removed it.”
Erin’s father Bob added, “The ‘not knowing’ part of how Erin was going to come out of this surgery was the scariest. I’ve told people the only thing that kept us from totally losing it during those days prior to the surgery was: knowing we were in the best place in the world for this kind of stuff.”
Not only was the more than eight-hour surgery successful, but Dr. Edward Smith, the pediatric neurosurgeon who performed the procedure, told the Holmbergs that they removed 99 percent of the tumor. Now, just nine months after having surgery and far from being clear of all the effects that the tumor caused, Erin is back on the pitch with the Tigers and not just playing but excelling.
She has scored six goals in OA’s opening four games, including two goals apiece in the first two games of the season. OA coach Britt Sellmayer said, “It’s awesome to see how far she has come, especially with all the hard work she has put into her rehab. I think it is nothing short of a miracle.”
Erin, who returned to her club team, NEFC Breakers, just 10 weeks after the surgery, said, “Playing soccer almost made me forget that I went through the whole situation, and it’s still like that now where I’m not constantly thinking about my disability with my arm. It makes me forget that I went through it because I can still play soccer.”
Mystery pain leads to Children’s Hospital
The pain started in the spring of last year but became far more intense during the early part of the basketball season. OA coach Laney Clement-Holbrook recalled that when the Tigers played Taunton (on Dec. 14), Erin didn’t look right in warm-ups but she was able to battle through the game. Afterwards, it was clear something was wrong and it only got worse over the next few days.
After several sleepless nights, Erin and her mother Paula went to Brockton Hospital but were told it was likely muscular and no MRI was given. “I couldn’t even stand being with my friends because of the pain,” Erin said. “I was just pacing the room, I couldn’t sit down because the pain was so bad, and my arm that night started to get more numb, which was a different symptom.”
On the advice of a family friend, the Holmbergs tried Children’s Hospital. According to Erin, they arrived in the middle of the night and were given an MRI just a few hours later. The results were explained to the family in the early evening. Bob said, “The initial diagnosis was very scary. They had to cut into her spinal cord, and try to remove as much of the tumor as possible.”
Spinal surgery is delicate and comes with inherent risk, but it was necessary. “I just wanted the pain to be over,” Erin admitted. Following surgery on Dec. 21, Erin was told that it was a success (“It was like a miracle,” Bob said) and that they were able to remove 99 percent of the tumor. “My dad came in and told me and that was the first time that I broke down into tears because I was so happy. That was the first time I cried, but it was tears of joy.”
Bob noted, “She had been an absolute rock throughout all of the scary meetings and diagnoses. Never breaking down, asking questions. Kind of like she is on the soccer field or basketball court: calm, cool and collected.”
Throughout the process, her friends and teammates from basketball and soccer showed support. Clement-Holbrook said that the Tigers got a video of Erin walking in the hospital a couple of days after the surgery and that a couple of players were able to see Erin to deliver stuffed animals that she could use to support her neck during recovery.
“One of the things I always talk about with my players is the value of sports and how someday they will be faced with a life changing moment,” Clement-Holbrook said. “It’s never a question of if, but a question of when. I told them that for Erin this was her when and that we needed to do everything in our power to help her recover and come back with us.”
Long path to recovery continues
The recovery process is ongoing. There are a number of symptoms remain, although there has been improvement. Physical and occupational therapy have improved the strength in Erin’s right arm, even if there is no definite prognosis for how long it could take the nerves to fully recover (if at all).
“I did teach myself how to write lefty because I couldn’t even hold a pencil,” Erin explained. “It was also hard sitting at school for long periods of time, so me and the nurse got very close.”
There are still nerve issues, such as tingling, numbness, and pain in her arm, back, and legs, but she continues to manage it and continues to push through both at school and in athletics. In fact, sports were a blessing in the recovery even when she could only watch from the sidelines.
“The basketball and soccer teams kept me sane because they’re all my best friends,” Erin said. “Coach Holbrook was like my mom during the whole thing. She was always checking up on me.”
As soon as she could, Erin was on the bench for the basketball team’s games, cheering the Tigers on during their playoff run. “Right when I got home I wanted to go to my basketball game and cheer them on,” she said. “I made sure to not make it about me. I wanted to be able to cheer them on and not have them feel bad for me all the time.”
Clement-Holbrook said, “The example that she set for all of us was powerful and inspirational to say the least. I credit her with our late run especially in the tournament because she would have done anything to be out there.”
Ten weeks after surgery, Erin was cleared to resume physical activities and she immediately jumped into club soccer. In her first game back, she scored a late goal to earn her team a draw. “My coach even said he was crying,” Erin said with a chuckle.
That form has continued for Oliver Ames this fall. Erin scored a brace in each of the first two games and in OA’s last game at North Attleboro she scored the opening goal of the afternoon (her sixth of the young season) and assisted on the other three OA goals. She has hit the ground running and has shown no signs of the struggles she has endured over the last year, even if symptoms still remain.
“I think my legs are still affected by it but I just don’t notice it as much,” she said. “The feeling is still vaguely off in my legs but it’s not noticeable so it doesn’t affect my running at all.”
Sellmayer said, “We knew the goals were going to come once we saw her in the preseason. All her fitness results were in the top three on the team. We were all just very happy for her and her family.” When asked if he thinks that Erin inspires her teammates, Sellmayer replied, “I feel Erin has been an inspiration to our whole community.”
Her family certainly appreciates being able to see her back on the pitch with her OA teammates and friends. Bob said, “Knowing what she has gone through and knowing that eight months ago, we didn’t know if she would ever play sports again, it kind of puts things into perspective. We are just happy that she is out there…Watching her be a teammate, co-captain and a leader, that’s what high school sports is all about, and we are just happy that she is still a part of it all.”
The recovery process will continue for a long time. Erin is still doing therapy to try and rebuild the strength in her right arm. There is still nerve pain, there is still numbness, and there are going to be numerous follow-up MRIs to keep an eye on the remaining tumor and make sure it isn’t growing.
This experience has given her a new appreciation for the games that she loves and cherishing each moment on the pitch or on the court.
“After I went through this and being told I could never play sports again I always say you never know how many more chances you get,” Erin reflected. “Even if you’re a junior, you never know what could happen, so you need to give everything, 100 percent.
“I’m very grateful that I am able to play and I’m going to give everything I have every day because you never know what can happen.”