As a member of the Colgate University women’s ice hockey team, Carly McNaughton was spending the summer of 2004, like most summers, preparing for the upcoming hockey season.
In July, Carly’s ordinary summer suddenly turned sour when she experienced a rapid weight loss of 30 pounds in three weeks. The normally bubbly 20-year-old experienced a lack of energy, loss of appetite, and couldn’t keep any food down.
“I didn’t have a lot of energy, but I felt okay,” Carly explains. “I think I felt okay because I was working out so much. Because I was athletic I didn’t feel it [the effects] until it was really, really bad.”
After seeing one doctor who diagnosed her with a bladder infection, and a second doctor who did not reach a conclusion, Carly and her parents, Brian and Lois, sought the advice of a third physician. This doctor ordered an ultrasound, but the results were not what anyone was expecting. The ultrasound revealed a grapefruit-sized obstruction in her abdomen. The doctor was concerned that it was ovarian cancer and sent Carly 132 miles north of her hometown of Lethbridge, Alberta to the Calgary Cancer Centre. Her surgery was scheduled for two weeks later, on September 2nd.
“We were very concerned and considered the worst,” Carly’s father Brian said. “But prior to the initial diagnosis, cancer did not seem to be a possibility. But when they send you to the cancer centre, we were told they suspected ovarian cancer. Those 16 days were the worst. Many moments during every day were pure terror.”
The surgery, which typically lasts two hours, required four, after some complications and obstacles arose. A couple of hours into the surgery, Carly’s parents knew something wasn’t right when they stopped receiving updates from the operating room.
“During the surgery she had to have two transfusions as she lost so much blood,” Brian says of the complications. “The surgeon told us that twice Carly was dead for brief periods.”
“When he initially opened her up, he thought she was pretty much done,” Brian said after the surgeons saw the extent of the damage. “The surgeon told us he initially thought he would just be making her comfortable for her last few days. Then once he got removing a few things he had a pretty good feeling that it was not cancer, but a massive bowel infection.” During the surgery, doctors removed 30 centimeteres of Carly’s small intestine, along with her appendix and right ovary.
Doctors diagnosed Carly with Crohn’s Disease. Crohn’s is a chronic disorder that can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract and, together with ulcerative colitis, a related inflammatory bowel disease, affects about 500,000 people in North America. It most commonly affects the small intestine and/or colon and often develops during the teenage years. Due to the size of the obstruction Carly had in her abdomen, doctors estimated it had been forming for five to six years.
“I had IV’s in my neck, arm, everywhere,” Carly said. “And a tube down into my stomach.” Doctors expected that it would be at least two weeks before Carly would be eating again, and three weeks for her to recover completely. Carly’s three-week recovery turned into just 11 days, and she was eating within seven days. She left the hospital on September 13th. The doctors credited her speedy recovery process to her high level of fitness.
“Since I was so athletic my body recovered faster than an average person would,” Carly said. Although she was eating after seven days, she was not allowed to do any physical activity, including playing hockey. Having already taken the fall semester off at Colgate to recover, Carly had to make the difficult decision regarding the spring semester. Would she return to the rink?
With doctors advising her that stress levels could aggravate the disease, Carly, her parents, and Colgate women’s hockey head coach, Scott Wiley, collectively decided it would be best for her to take a medical red shirt from hockey and to take a lighter course load.
“I agreed that it would be best for her to take the year off from hockey,” Wiley said. “I knew that she had been through a lot. She had lost weight, strength and conditioning, and it would take her a long time to be able to get back into the rigors of Division I hockey. I thought it would be the best for her and the program.”
“It made a lot more sense to take the year off, and get back to 100%,” Carly said. “I was feeling good, but in hindsight not as good as I could have.”
Carly’s determination to rejoin the team was evident when she laced up her skates in early October, just three weeks after she left the hospital, to start skating again. Even though she couldn’t play hockey, Carly wanted to be there to support her teammates. She returned to Colgate three times during the fall semester to cheer on the Raiders.
In January 2004, Carly began to practice again with the Raiders and continued her strength and conditioning program to prepare for the following season. On October 2, 2005, Carly played in her first game since her illness, and didn’t miss a beat.
“She came back to the team stronger than ever and was able to play a more physical game,” Wiley said. “She came back quickly and was a factor right away.” That year, Carly played in all 34 games as a co-captain and finished the season with 13 points.
Thus far this season, Carly leads the senior class in scoring with 16 points. She was named the USCHO.com National Offensive Player of the Week on October 29th, the first time a Colgate skater has earned the honour.
Carly is helping Colgate enjoy its finest season, setting a program record 10 wins in the ECAC Hockey League, the most competitive women’s hockey conference in the NCAA. The Raiders are currently in second place in the league standings with Harvard and behind first-place Dartmouth. With just three weekends remaining, they hope to secure home ice advantage for playoffs for the first time in the program’s history.
“Her play this year has been consistently good,” Wiley said. “She leads our team in game-winning goals and is a solid two-way player.”
Carly has made adjustments in her life, most of which are managing her diet and stress levels. She has annual check-ups, and takes medication once a day to prevent and relieve symptoms of the disease. There are also particular foods she must avoid because they are hard to digest.
Any athlete dealing with Crohn’s disease confronts certain challenges, but Carly is determined not to let the disease rule her life or take her away from hockey.