Female Athletes Head for Trouble

UPDATE: Jill Brooks, the neuropsychologist who treated Melissa Wester Inzitari, now runs Head 2 Head Consultants, a practice in Gladstone, N.J., and is a member of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Association's Medical Advisory Committee.

Like all great athletes, she slows the game down. She soars in the air and, for a moment, sees every angle. Teammates flashing grins as they cut toward the goal. The ball spinning as it sails over -- no, as it lines off the side of her head when she nails it. Again.

This is Melissa Wester, this is her sport and this is her move. It's fall 1996, and she's a sophomore at The College of New Jersey. She is a tiny 4'11"; as a freshman, she was shorter than the girl nicknamed "Midget," so Melissa became "Toy." But height doesn't measure stature: She was All-America and captain of her high school squads in Bridgewater, N.J. Sometimes height doesn't even measure altitude. Skying and heading the ball lets her triumph over taller players; she even runs up opponents' backs to get as much height as she can.

When her feet touch earth again, even before she starts running, Melissa gets a rush nothing else delivers. She feels her adrenaline-jacked heart beating in her skull. Breathing this hard tells her she's as alive as she can be.

The ball is back in the air. She closes in on it, times her jump, aims her shoulders -- but another player rockets into the same space. Their heads collide.

Happens all the time: Melissa has played through midair crashes and getting kicked on the ground, through broken ribs and busted ankles. But after this hit, she feels like she's watching herself run, not telling her body how to move. "I feel like I don't know where I am," she says to an assistant coach at halftime. Bizarrely, Melissa asks teammates for milkshakes, then begs them not to tell the head coach. She just wants to play. She always wants to play.

In the second half, Melissa starts walking in circles, staring at the lights. Yanked from the game, she heads for the wrong team's bench.

Her coaches call an ambulance. "You can't take me," she yells. Then she snaps, "Let's just go."

She babbles all the way to the Trenton hospital. But once there, a CT scan shows nothing wrong, and she's cleared to play. I wasn't knocked out, she thinks. It can't be that bad.

Next day, she's back at practice and into her usual routine. Except things aren't normal anymore. During her days, she has practices and games, but she's weirdly sensitive to light and sound. She wears sunglasses inside movie theaters. At night, there are team parties -- and pressurizing headaches, migraines bad enough to keep her home while her friends go clubbing. Her roommate plays soccer. Her boyfriend plays soccer. Her three sisters play soccer. When there's nobody to play with, and she feels happy, Melissa likes to kick a ball against a wall. When there's nobody to play with, and she feels unhappy, she likes to kick a ball against a wall. But as the season winds down, there are a lot more unhappy days.

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