Never Give Up:
The Miracle of Erin Dallas
When the Owls' All-America field hockey player went in for routine off-season surgery, no one knew she'd be battling for her life.
During the 1980 Winter Olympics, with the clock ticking down the final seconds, the United States upset a heavily favored Soviet Union hockey team. Announcer Al Michaels asked a stunned nation, "Do you believe in miracles?"
Twenty-nine years later, as the Keene State field hockey season concluded, Owl coaches, players, and fans asked that same question.
Fighting off a life-threatening infection called necrotizing fasciitis (a rare bacterial infection that can destroy skin and the soft tissue beneath it) just months earlier, Erin Dallas of Marlow defied the odds and returned to the Keene State field hockey team this season. "When people tell me I can't do something, I'm going to prove them wrong," said Dallas about her unyielding drive to return to the sport she loves.
A two-time All-American at Keene State, Dallas went in for what appeared to be routine ACL surgery in mid-December 2008. It proved to be anything but routine. Four days later, she was readmitted to the hospital. "At first they thought it was a regular post-op infection," said Dallas. "I wasn't sure what was going on."
Shipped by ambulance to Dartmouth-Hitchcock on New Year's Eve, Dallas underwent surgery on 10 consecutive days. She spent hours in a hyperbaric chamber to kill the bacteria and had the first of many plastic surgeries on January 14. When the plastic surgery didn't heal, a frustrated Dallas remembers saying, "Take my leg and let me go home."
The multiple surgeries left Dallas confused and riding a wave of emotions. "Even after the plastic surgery, they were still debating if they were going to take my leg," she said. "They told me I wasn't ever going to be able to walk properly."
Dallas finally received a bit of good news on January 20, when the doctors stopped the infection and she was transferred back to Keene. But a few weeks later, Dallas found herself back up in Lebanon. At the insistence of her mother, Ann, Dallas was put back in the hyperbaric chamber. "My parents felt that the chamber saved my life the first time," Dallas said. "They wouldn't take no for an answer." Once when the chamber was understaffed, Ann, a nurse, stepped in so Dallas could continue her treatment. "If I hadn't had my mom there, I honestly think things would have been different," Dallas said. "She knew the right questions to ask."
Dallas said she couldn't have survived the ordeal without the support of her family and friends. Teammates and coaches decorated her hospital room, and the College held a special night for her at a basketball game with proceeds going to the hospital to offset her medical bills. As she entered the Spaulding Gym leaning on a walker, fans greeted her with a standing ovation. Almost in tears, Dallas thanked the crowd for their prayers and for lifting her spirits during this difficult time in her life.
As spring approached, activities Dallas once took for granted became milestones. A simple run was a cherished moment. Soon after being cleared to resume physical activity, Dallas couldn't resist the temptation to pick up a field hockey stick. After hitting a ball around and doing a few moves, Dallas began pondering the impossible. "I started thinking, ‘I can do this. Maybe I can talk them into letting me play again.'"
Her recovery surprised even Dr. Robert Cantu, the director of orthopedic trauma at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital in Lebanon. "When I saw Erin in my office before the season, I told her I was shocked that she was considering playing field hockey again," Dr. Cantu said. "In her own humble way, she just said, ‘That's the way I am.'" He gave Dallas a list of stipulations before he would give her the go-ahead. He asked her to practice for a month the same way she would during the season and see how her body handled it.
On August 11, just five months after enduring multiple surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy, Dallas was cleared to play. Dr. Cantu told Dallas, "I can't believe I'm doing this. You're definitely my miracle child." Dr. Cantu believes that Dallas's high fitness level and drive helped her survive the infection. "No question, she's a very determined young lady," he said.
First, Dallas needed Coach Amy Watson's affirmation that she could still be an asset to the team. Then, after participating in a few scrimmages, Dallas had to cross one other hurdle: her mother's approval. "She came out and watched me play against my sister Nicole," Dallas said. "It was the first time since my injury that I played one-on-one."
"We went from crossing our fingers that she would be OK to hoping that she would be up and around again," said senior Vikki Stoessel. "When I found out this summer that she'd play, I was floored. It's an absolute miracle. To be able to run up and hug her when we score and do all those things just like we did in years past is awesome."
A midfielder during her first two seasons with the Owls, Dallas made the switch to defense, using her tremendous knowledge of the game and mental toughness to make up for her loss of mobility. Boosted by weekly physical therapy, mandatory weight lifting, and a list of precautions, number 44 was in the starting lineup in the Owls' opening game against RPI.
And play she has. Dallas started in all of Keene State's games. And how has she transitioned from midfield to defense? "I'm still making adjustments, but for the most part I'm comfortable playing," said Dallas, a typical understatement. At season's end, she was named Little East defensive player of the year, the first student-athlete in the history of the LEC to receive both top offensive and defensive honors during their career. (Season recap)
Coach Watson observed, "Her body can still do great things, but it can't do the same great things that it used to do. The little pieces of her game that she used to take for granted have become more cerebral instead of natural." Looking back over the past 11 months, Dallas said, "I've been through a lot, and I've learned a lot. The only advice I would give to others in my situation is, ‘Never give up, because miracles do happen.'"