Above: Alyssa Conti, right, shown here with teammate Natalie Zeenni at a recent photo shoot.
By Keith Lair, Staff Writer
Alyssa Conti is a typical teenager. She runs, jumps, gossips with her friends, sends and receives constant text messages and studies hard.
Oh yeah, she plays a little soccer, too. So well that the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy captain has already accepted a scholarship to play at Johns Hopkins University next season.
Thirteen months ago, walking, running and playing soccer would have seemed so surreal. Conti was sitting in a Huntington Memorial Hospital bed, paralyzed from the hips down.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be playing,” she said. “Hopefully, I could run some day. Now being the captain is, oh my gosh, I did it.”
It all happened suddenly.
She was playing in a Sunday game for her Pasadena-based club soccer team. She had a fever of 104 degrees that night. The following day was a school holiday so the Pasadena resident spent most of the day resting, but her fever was still at 104. She went to the refrigerator to get some Gatorade when strange things began happening.
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“I couldn’t figure out how to open the fridge,” she recalled. “I couldn’t figure out how to put my arm out and get it to open. I thought I was doing it. I was just standing there.
“My mom said, ‘What are you doing? I said, `I’m opening the fridge.’ She was like, `Open it.’ But I couldn’t. In my mind, I was opening the fridge.”
Seconds later, she passed out on the kitchen floor. Her mother, Christine, a nurse at Huntington, rushed her to the emergency room.
Conti complained of chest pains. While getting prepared for X-rays, she went into a seizure. She could not move her legs and had no feeling from the hips down.
“We were freaking out,” recalled her father, Peter, a radiologist at USC. “Here is a girl who is going at it 110 percent on the soccer field and the next day she cannot walk.”
Peter Conti was in China when it happened.
Somehow, Conti had a viral infection, perhaps from the H1N1 virus, that led to Guillain-Barre Syndrome. It attacks the neurological motor skills, typically starting at the feet and working its way up the body, sometimes leading to death because the heart and lungs suddenly stop functioning. There is no known cause or cure for the syndrome, which affects no more than one or two people per 100,000.
“She was not sick, yet she could not walk,” Peter Conti said.
Alyssa spent two weeks at Huntington and then began using a wheelchair. She had a meeting with her doctor, who said she hoped to get the teenager to walk someday.
“The doctor said, `I’m going to make sure you can walk by January,’ ” she recalled. “I said, `That’s not good enough for me. I have a game.’ I was like I can’t do it. Soccer is a part of who I am. I have to get back on the field. My team is training without me. What do you mean? I have to get out there.”
Peter Conti said, “I about fell out of my chair when she told the doctor that.”
Sure enough, five weeks after being hospitalized, she was finding out how to get around on her two legs. Two weeks later, she was at the Tologs’ first game of the 2009-10 season.
“I have no idea,” she said of how she healed so quickly. “I wish I had an idea and I wish I could give it to others. That’s really sad, and sad for me. There are many people still in a wheelchair and can’t walk and here I am playing soccer. I’m very lucky.”
It was nearly a given that Conti would be studying medicine next year. She said she plans on becoming a doctor.
“We didn’t think it was as bad as it was,” Tologs co-coach Kathy Desmond said. “We thought that she’ll be fine, she’ll be back next week. It turns out it was really crazy how sick she was and determined to come back.
“I’m so happy for her getting into Johns Hopkins and being able to play soccer at the same time. Her two passions, medicine and soccer.”
Conti said she was angling toward medicine long before her sudden paralysis.
“I’m fascinated by it,” she said. “But after what happened, I want to do it even more. It’s a big mystery, but it’s part of who I am.”
Because it took so long to get back to full strength, Conti played her midfield position as much as she could last season, but not as much as she wanted. She said she did not feel like she was back to her full strength until late in the season.
And now, she’s a captain.
“She’s a great kid,” Desmond said. “There is no drama. She is always the same. She’s keeping our juniors in line. They are strong players and strong individuals. She has to keep them on the straight and narrow.”
And for Conti, that would mean guiding the Tologs to that elusive Mission League title and a CIF-Southern Section title.
“It makes it fun,” she said of the pressure of being favored this season. “We’re ranked high and we get to show up and play, and hopefully we get to finish that high.”