OPELOUSAS — Lauren Miller appears to have suffered no trauma.
The starting third baseman for the Opelousas Catholic softball team comes off like any other teenage girl. Taking a few moments at a recent practice, she fields hard-hit ground balls with ease, takes swings in the batting cage and laughs with her friends and teammates.
A closer look shows something slightly different.
The 15-year-old now spends more time hanging out with her parents than she does with her close friends. Lauren still has a friendly and welcoming personality, but she seems more reserved than she was just a few months before.
That is especially the case when it comes to discussing the December day she suffered a mysterious injury, one that stayed with Lauren long after the Christmas decorations had been taken down and packed away.
“It was frustrating at times because I didn’t remember what happened to me,” she said. “For me, nothing had happened, and I didn’t know why I couldn’t do things like before.”
Fear, then relief
The Millers — father Chris, mother Stacie, daughters Kylie and Lauren and son Aaron — left for a family vacation Dec. 19.
The family — avid skiers but not daredevils by any means — took a direct flight from New Orleans to Denver and then made the short drive to Keystone, Colorado, for five days of fun on the slopes. The plan was to ski all day Christmas Eve and then fly back on Christmas Day.
The final day on the mountain started normal enough.
“It was a beautiful day,” Chris said.
“We had kind of overcast weather for most of the trip, but that day it was beautiful. We all went up on the lift right around 10 o’clock in the morning. We took a picture at the top and pointed our skis down the mountain.”
The plan was for Dad to ski the familiar trail with the kids while Mom went to the other side of the mountain to see whether Lauren’s cell phone, which she had lost a few days before, had been turned in.
“We skied about halfway down the run, and we stopped,” Chris said. “My son pulled up next to me, and I asked him where the girls were. He said the girls had skied through the trees at the top of the trail. They showed up minutes later and told me that Lauren had bumped into a tree and hit her shoulder. My oldest daughter, Kylie, even laughed about it. I asked if she was OK, and she said, ‘Yes, Dad, I am fine.’ So I said, ‘OK, we will meet you at the end of the base.’ ”
Chris turned off the intermediate blue trail and turned left on the less-challenging green trail and made his way down to the base. Moments later, his son arrived, and then Kylie — but not Lauren.
“Kylie came up and said, ‘Where is Lauren?’ ” Chris remembered. “I said, ‘She was with you,’ but she never showed. I figured she must have straightened out the trail and went down a different way. We always at least once during a trip get separated on the mountain.”
The Miller patriarch decided to take the eight-minute lift ride back to the top and then ski back down. But he took the wrong trail down, so he went back up again and took the correct one. When he arrived back at the base for a second time, there was still no sign of Lauren — and fear began to build within the family from Sunset.
“At that time, I am starting to panic,” Chris said. “I could see my kids had some panic on their faces. That is when we started to call the ski patrol.”
Since Lauren hadn’t been missing for two hours, the ski patrol couldn’t go out looking for her immediately, but they did let other patrolmen know a 15-year-old girl wearing a purple jacket and black pants was missing.
“It was very frustrating,” Chris said. “I understood that they have this happen numerous times per day, but as a father I was worried.”
While Chris was dealing with his simmering dread, his wife had made her way back to the rest of the children and tried her best to comfort them.
“When I got there, my oldest was in full panic mood,” Stacie said. “She was on her knees. I was trying to console her.”
To help calm their nerves, Stacie took her daughter and son into the village to check the restrooms and shops. That search came up empty, so the trio reunited with Chris at the base.
“Kylie said that she knew where she had last seen her,” Stacie said. “But she could barely stand up, she was shaking so much. My son then said, ‘I will go, Mom.’ As he took Kylie back up, I was just walking in circles at the base.”
The siblings each took a side of one trail, while the ski patrol took another. The Millers ended up picking the right trail: At the spot where the blue and green trails intersected, Lauren was flat on her back, off by some trees.
“My thought now is that she was making the left turn and caught an edge and fell and maybe bumped her head rather violently on the packed snow and skied into the trees,” Chris said.
Lauren was placed on a stretcher and taken to the medical center — more like a triage unit — on the other side of the mountain.
Lauren still doesn’t remember what happened that day.
“I remember taking those pictures that morning, but I don’t remember anything after that,” she said.
After nearly two anxiety-filled hours, the Millers had found their daughter, but the ordeal had just begun.
‘She did seem a little off’
Lauren complained of being cold and of neck pain, so doctors at the center took an X-ray, but it came back negative. The initial diagnosis was that she suffered a concussion because of her symptoms of slurred speech and trouble with other motor skills, particularly the left side of her body.
“The doctors there didn’t think there was anything real significant that had happened,” Chris said. “That kept us at ease. You go from not being able to find her to having her safe and sound. So you feel that you can deal with anything.”
Added Stacie: “I remember leaning over and saying, ‘Lauren, it is Mom, baby. Do you know where you are?’ And she said, ‘Seattle Grace,’ which is of course the hospital from ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ We kind of giggled about that, but she did seem a little off — but nothing to be terribly concerned about. We found her, and she was alive. We can deal with anything else.”
Lauren was taken by ambulance to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, where she received a CT scan that didn’t show any swelling or bleeding on the brain. A team of doctors confirmed that she had a concussion but cleared her to fly home the next day.
After a combative night, Lauren woke up the next morning more alert and able to move better. The Millers flew back to New Orleans and then drove home to Sunset.
“She was excited to see her dog,” Chris said. “She sat on the sofa that night and opened her Christmas presents and was happy.”
But Chris and Stacie wanted to take extra precautions, so Chris called friend of the family Dr. Kevin Hargrave, a neurologist based in Lafayette. The next Monday, Lauren saw Hargrave.
“Fortunately he knew her and knew her deposition before the accident,” Chris said. “He looked at her and checked her out. But his idea was to have her take a four-stage MRI because it is so much clearer.”
Later that day, the Millers discovered just how severe Lauren’s injury was.
“We got a call that day about noon, and he said he was very surprised at what he saw. He said it was very traumatic,” Chris said. “He threw out medical terminology that I am not familiar with, but the thing that stuck with me was when he said that this wasn’t something he sees in everyday life. It was similar to what he sees in a major automobile accident.”
The MRI found Lauren had a couple of small spots on the brain where bleeding had occurred and two spots that had been bruised. They were on areas of the brain associated with the left side of the body.
“You start to second-guess yourself,” Stacie said. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, we should have never put her on the plane.’ But she had improved so much in only a few days.”
Hargrave recommended that Lauren not return to soccer, where she started as the goalie, and that softball may have to be shelved as well. He said Lauren’s recovery could take two weeks or as long as two years.
Finding her way back
In the weeks following the accident, Lauren struggled with the simple things. She struggled briefly in school — making C’s in math, a subject she traditionally makes A’s in — and there was the time she couldn’t run to her house from the mailbox at the street.
But as time progressed, including numerous hours of throwing the softball in the driveway with her dad, Lauren’s motor skills improved dramatically. Still, she was forced to watch the soccer team from the sideline.
“I wanted to go back to soccer as soon as possible,” she said. “It was frustrating not to be out there.”
Lauren eventually was cleared to come back, and she played a few games toward the end of the regular season and two postseason games, including handling 25 shots on goal in a second-round playoff matchup.
Lauren was excited to turn her attention to softball. She had started at third base during the Lady Vikings’ run to the Fast Pitch 56 in Sulphur last year, but coach Jay Artall noticed his star player was different.
“My wife is the cheerleading coach, and Lauren is a cheerleader,” Artall said. “I would ask her something, and she would look at me and hesitate for a second. It appeared to me that she had to process what I said, which wasn’t like her. I was concerned about her playing the hot corner, because you have to react within a split-second.”
Artall’s concerns rose during preseason practice. He noticed that, when Lauren knew a grounder was coming her way, she scooped it up with no problem. But when the team took part in a hit around the infield, she would sometimes bobble a routine play.
“I just noticed that things were not the same with her,” Artall said. “The last thing I wanted to do was put any child in a position that they could hurt themselves. Was I being cautious? Sure, but it was the right thing to do.”
Artall opted to make Lauren a part-time player. In one game, she would only bat, and the next she would only serve as a fielder.
After a game in which she once again was only a part-time player, the coach and his standout player had a heart-to-heart talk.
“It was long,” Lauren said. “The game before that, he didn’t put me on defense, and I was just offense. I was upset with that. He pulled me aside the next day at practice and explained why he had done that. We talked about everything. It was a good talk.”
“I knew this was affecting Lauren, because she was reacting to me not like she normally did,” Artall said. “I knew she was frustrated and aggravated. So I let the assistant coaches run practice, and we talked and laughed and cried together.
“I try to treat these girls like my own two daughters. I told her I was looking after her safety and well-being. Since the conversation, our connection is back like it was. It is all positive.”
Lauren also has regained her confidence at the plate: Her average has climbed above the .300 mark as she helped the team back to the Class 2A playoffs. No. 13 Opelousas Catholic hosts No. 20 Sacred Heart at 4:30 p.m. Monday.
“Just seeing her out on the field laughing with her friends is the most gratifying thing for us as parents,” Chris said.
“As a parent, you quickly compromise when you get your child back,” Stacie added. “It didn’t matter what I got back, as long as I got her back.”
As for whether the family will return to the snow-covered Colorado slopes, Mom and Dad are a little cautious. Stacie even suggested having ropes tied to one another, but the youngest Miller didn’t hesitate.
“I want to,” Lauren said. “I think if I remember it, then I would feel different. But I don’t know what happened, so I am not scared at all.”