Aug. 6—VERDIGRIS — Emma West never saw it coming.
What was supposed to be a routine practice session suddenly took a turn for the worse last fall as she made her way onto the Verdigris High School softball diamond. One moment she was talking to a teammate, and the next she was crashing to the turf in pain.
It was as if a car hit her at top speed, only it wasn't a vehicle. It was a softball, its full force striking her in the face.
"I just remember getting hit, and I grabbed my face," West said. "I was like, 'Oh, this hurts.' Then I spun around in a circle, they said, and then I dropped to the ground."
West didn't even remember falling to the ground. Her last memory before blacking out was coaches Brian Keith and Russell Wood rushing to her aid — not to mention the blood gushing from her nose.
Things didn't look good for the Lady Cardinals' starting third baseman, and neither did the prognosis. In addition to extensive facial fractures and a bruised brain, West was diagnosed with Chiari 1.
According to MayoClinic.org, Chiari 1 — the first of three types of Chiari malformation — is a condition where the skull is unnaturally small, putting pressure on the brain while forcing brain tissue into the spinal canal. Chiari 1 develops as the skull and brain are still growing, so symptoms often don't occur until late childhood or beyond.
"It was awful," West said. "I couldn't really sleep, and the pain ... the pain was awful. When it first happened, I was like super hot. Then one of my teammates called my mom, and they came and they took me to the hospital. The pain meds would help, but it was only for like an hour. I would wake up all the time during the night, and I couldn't sleep laying down because they didn't want spinal fluid going into my head, so I had to sleep sitting up. That was probably the worst part."
Unfortunately, it was determined West needed surgery to correct the issue that had been negatively affecting her for years and likely would've gone undiagnosed if not for the untimely softball injury.
It was a scary but necessary realization.
"During my sophomore year, I was really sick and not doing well," said West, who is entering her senior season. "I was just hurting all the time, so my mom was very relieved because we thought we found the reason why I was hurting. (My parents) were excited but also sad at the same time."
However, there was some good news in regards to her athletic career.
Despite the need for surgery, medical professionals decided West could return to softball after a few days of recovery. She was back on the diamond less than a week after the incident, and the timing was perfect.
West played a significant role in helping Verdigris claim the regional championship and clinch its first trip to the state tournament in three years. The Lady Cardinals were ousted in a 1-0 decision against Plainview in the Class 4A quarterfinals, but West was where she needed to be — at third base and in the dugout.
"The first few days, I just stayed at home out of the sun," West said. "I just couldn't really do anything. Then I started coming to practice and games and just watching for a little bit and not staying the whole time. Then I just started slowly working back. The first thing they said when they released me was I couldn't run, so I wasn't released all the way. They said the pressure of me running and hitting the ground could start my nosebleeds again, and that would have been really bad if my nose would have started bleeding again. So I just kind of took groundballs and just kept it really easy and then just slowly worked into running and doing it fully."
The good news didn't end there, though.
After the season ended and West began mentally preparing herself for surgery, something seemingly supernatural occurred.
An MRI in mid-October — only five days after Verdigris softball concluded its 2021 campaign — revealed all signs of Chiari 1 had vanished. As a result, surgery was no longer needed.
Since then, West has experienced no pain or negative side effects. A true miracle, indeed.
West credits her Christian faith for her recovery and getting her through that uncertain time in her life.
"It's so much easier without having to sit out or having to get brain surgery in general," West said. "My parents think that maybe the prayer and everything (played a role). I really did not want to get the surgery. After school ball season I was going into comp ball — so I was still playing softball — and I really just didn't want to have surgery and sit out and all that."
West took advantage of her newfound health in the spring as a member of the Verdigris track-and-field team, qualifying for the state meet in three events.
At the Class 4A State Championships in Catoosa, she placed eighth in the 100-meter dash in 12.81 seconds, seventh in the 200m in 26.19 seconds and sixth in the 4x100m relay alongside Becca Manahl, Maddy Daniels and Kylee Dee in 51.04 seconds.
"After Christmas Break, I switch over to track, which is kind of like slowly working to get into shape," said West, who ran cross-country at Claremore Christian School before transferring to Verdigris after eighth grade. "I don't really like the running, but I like the meets."
The senior hopes to carry that success to the diamond in 2022 as the Lady Cardinals aim for a second-consecutive regional championship and state tournament berth.
She will again be relied upon in the infield, but whether that will be at third base or elsewhere hasn't been fully determined.
"(My goal is) to make it further than the first round," West said. "And definitely to host regionals again. That was a really good environment for everyone. That was a lot of fun to be able to host it here and not have to travel. There's a lot going on — people are getting hurt — so I'm moving between short and third. It just kind of depends, but I like both of them. I'm more used to third now because I played that all last year, but it just kind of depends on who's pitching, who's hurt and who's doing good everywhere else."
Of course, West hasn't forgotten about her injury and how fortunate she was to make the recovery she did.
She experiences post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) moments ever so often, giving her a heightened startle response while on the diamond. Sometimes a ball doesn't even have to be in the air to cause her to flinch.
"There was one time we were sitting down and watching the JV play, and they had just rolled the ball," West said. "At first glance I thought it was coming toward me, and it scared me because of how quickly it was coming towards me. Or like sometimes my brother will fake throw something at me, and I'm like, 'Oh crap.'
"So when we're doing (batting practice) and stuff, (my teammates) get so scared when a ball comes close to me, like, 'You need to pay more attention ... be careful.'"