Nine months ago, Abby Stoller lay in a hospital bed, unable to use the left side of her body, while hearing the same refrain from every medical professional that walked through her door.
”I just remember every single nurse and doctor coming in saying, ‘You’re the youngest person I’ve had on this floor,’ ” recalled Stoller.
The 23-year-old Wayland native was at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, battling a quickly growing lesion on her brain stem. The cause? That was the other refrain Stoller heard over and over.
”It was pretty scary,” she said, “when team after team of doctors would come into my room and say, ‘We have no idea what this is.’ ”
Given the uncertainty of less than a year ago, it is stunning to see how Stoller is spending her summer: playing for Israel in the Women’s World Lacrosse Championship in Baltimore.
”I am grateful not just to be playing lacrosse but being able to live an active life,” said Stoller before an opening-round game against Norway last Friday, in which she scored in a 16-5 victory.
Stoller has become one of the few lacrosse players in the world to play the fast-paced sport while battling multiple sclerosis. After several weeks in the hospital last fall, doctors diagnosed her with the chronic disease that attacks the brain and central nervous system.
Unlike many MS patients, who experience a gradual onset of symptoms, Stoller’s struck suddenly and progressed quickly. Last September, she started graduate school at Simmons University (studying social work), and a month later she was playing for the school’s Division 3 lacrosse team. Stoller played midfield for UMass as an undergraduate, but graduated in 2021 with two years of NCAA eligibility remaining, which she decided to use at Simmons.
It was a stressful time, but physically she felt fine.
Stoller finished Simmons’s fall schedule the last weekend in October. Around that time, she made Israel’s team for the World Championship. After battling for playing time during her undergraduate career, she felt validated as a lacrosse player.
That all changed Nov. 5.
”My left foot went numb,” said Stoller. “It stayed like that for three days, then it went up my leg to my left hand.”
Stoller’s family encouraged her to go to the hospital, and when she did, doctors found the lesion on her brain stem.
“I never expected anything that serious going on because I felt fine just days before,” said Stoller.
Steroid and plasma exchange treatments followed. The lesion shrunk, and Stoller was allowed to leave the hospital for Thanksgiving before returning the next day for another plasma exchange.
Being sedentary after years of playing sports was frustrating to Stoller. Her treatment team brought an exercise bike to her hospital room, but it wasn’t the workout she was used to.
”I could only do five minutes on the bike, and I had to have two people there, one on each side of me, so I wouldn’t fall over,” said Stoller.
Her MS diagnosis didn’t come until December. Stoller began infusion treatment and physical therapy.
”Consistency got me to where I am,” said Stoller. “I took my physical therapy very seriously.”
By February, Stoller had rejoined the Simmons team, and on March 1, she played in the first game of the season against UMass Dartmouth, scoring six goals.
Despite ongoing symptoms such as numbness, headaches, and intense fatigue she calls “very inconsistent and so random,” Stoller broke Simmons’s season records with 88 goals, 36 caused turnovers, and 104 draw controls. That success came even after symptoms caused her to change positions from midfield to attack, and how she played draw controls.
In last week’s pool play at the World Championship, Stoller notched two goals and three assists as Israel went undefeated.
”She has worked hard to get to this point and continues to manage daily symptoms with determination,” said Israel coach Shelly Brezicki in an e-mail. “Watching her overcome daily hurdles is humbling.”
Stoller’s lacrosse career now has new meaning: She wants to inspire others battling MS or any other physical or mental illness.
”I keep Googling ‘athletes with MS’ and there are not many,” said Stoller. “I want be a role model and give back to anyone struggling with anything, especially those with MS or mental illness.”
Kat Cornetta can be reached at email@example.com.