REGGIE HAYES: Trine University’s Kara Eck rebounds from brain surgery to track-and-field champ in two months
ANGOLA – Kara Eck had a sinus infection. It happens. It’s annoying and frustrating, but you take some over-the-counter meds and fight it off.
Eck couldn’t seem to shake it, but she forged on because she’s as tough as they come, a four-time track-and-field NCAA Division III All-American in the throws. She approaches her sport and her life going “110 mph” on a daily basis.
Finally, after days of little sleep and a continually swelling face, she went to the emergency room.
The doctor walked in with results of the MRI.
“He proceeded to read all the big medical terms to tell us what it is,” Eck said. “In the end, he said, ‘It’s a brain infection. You have a packet of pus in between your skull and your brain on your left frontal side.’ He said the next step was to contact a higher facility.”
Eck was transported to Lutheran Hospital, where the situation escalated.
“I saw a neurologist,” Eck said. “He looked at my MRI and he told me I’d have brain surgery in the morning.”
On Dec. 19, Eck underwent brain surgery to treat the infection.
We’ll pause here to emphasize the feel-good portion of Eck’s scary, life-changing event. A little more than two months after brain surgery, Eck won the weight throw and shot put last Saturday at the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Indoor Championships hosted by Trine.
“To everyone else, that’s crazy,” Trine throwing coach Amanda Cope said. “If you know Kara, that’s just who she is. I wasn’t surprised she was back out there. I was surprised by how well she did.
“This was not a knee injury or your average sports injury,” Cope said. “This was out of the box. No one really knew what was going to happen.”
Eck, a senior who turns 23 today, is not just another athlete on the Trine’s women’s team. Head coach Rod Waters calls her “the face of the program.” Eck, a former standout at DeKalb High School, has influenced other athletes to join the program. A once-dormant women’s track-and-field program earned second place as a team at the MIAA indoor event.
Eck’s performance in the weight throw at the University of Findlay on Dec. 8 was a personal best and the best in NCAA Division III at that point. She earned national “Athlete of the Week” honors.
She also accomplished that while fighting that nasty sinus infection.
“The next day she’s saying she’s not feeling good,” her father Mark Eck said. “She’s diagnosed with a double sinus infection and as the week wore on, it started to strike me that there is something wrong here.”
Kara Eck lives at home and commutes to Trine. Her father could tell she wasn’t herself and encouraged the initial trip to the emergency room.
He was there when the diagnosis escalated in a blur to the need for brain surgery.
“It was like watching a movie but you realize you’re in the middle of it,” Mark Eck said. “It’s very alarming to think about this with your daughter who’s very active and strong and outgoing. That Monday night before the surgery, I’m in the corner of the room, on my phone, trying to learn everything about the procedure.”
Kara remembers her father in the corner, looking into the surgery and all the possible outcomes. She decided the less she knew about it, the better.
“I didn’t have time to think about it or read about it and I think that was good,” Kara Eck said. “It helped my mindset.”
Kara Eck stayed in the ICU for five days, 24 or 25 staples on left front side of her head, and was home on Dec. 23 – meeting her goal of being home for Christmas. She later had two more sinus surgeries after that to open up the sinus cavities and make sure the infection was gone.
“To see her come out of surgery with her head all wrapped up and tubes coming out, it’s very scary and alarming,” Mark Eck said. “We just had faith the Good Lord was going to see us through.”
Kara Eck believes her athletic background helped in the healing process, both because of her physical strength and her background in dealing with adversity.
Mark Eck remembers encountering a physician’s assistant in the hallway during Kara’s five-day hospital stay.
“You’ve got an incredible daughter,” the physician’s assistant said. “I’ve never seen anybody move up and down the hallway days after surgery like she did.”
Kara Eck remained on antibiotics for six weeks, including IV antibiotics, during the recovery process.
On Feb. 5, she was cleared to practice again, with some restrictions. That was also the day she began student teaching at Wolcott Mills Elementary School in Wolcottville.
“I’m so used to going 110 mph, and then I was knocked down and going zero,” she said. “Jumping into student teaching and practicing at the same time felt like no big deal to me. You take it and run with it.”
She returned to practice with the goal of competing in the MIAA indoor meet.
Athletes return from injuries every day. They return from surgeries regularly. But this was brain surgery. Doctors told Eck she might not have made it if she would have waited a few days longer to be tested for her infection. For her to return to action was nothing short of incredible.
“A lot of people weren’t expecting me to come back,” Eck said. “But I tried to focus on the positive. I’m going to heal. I’m going to get better. If I can throw, great. That’s how I approached it. The possibilities are endless if you’re positive.”
Eck’s return served as an inspiration to the rest of the team.
“She’s done a lot for the program but it goes beyond just the numbers and the places,” Cope said. “She’s someone a lot of these people look up to, and look to advice, whether it’s sports-related or not.”
While she is qualified for the national indoor meet in early March, Eck will forego that event to continue work toward making her final outdoor season a memorable one. She is still operating under some limitations of the kind of workouts she can participate in while continuing with recovery.
Her outlook, always a positive one, hasn’t necessarily been changed as much as it has been reinforced.
“I enjoy things more now,” she said. “I appreciate things more now. It’s not quite the way I wanted to have that change of outlook on life, but I’ll take it and make the best of it.”
Eck made the best of her scary situation in short order, and those around her don’t have to look far for inspiration.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at email@example.com.