The taste is what Sierra Schlemmer missed most.
The sweet. The spicy. The savory.
She had been denied it all for far too long. The emergency surgery Schlemmer underwent at Blessing Hospital on Oct. 10, 2020, to repair the laceration of her pancreas saved the Culver-Stockton College freshman soccer player’s life, and it put her through an arduous recovery period.
She spent nearly six weeks in a hospital — three days in Blessing and 31 days in Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis — fighting to regain her strength and stamina, while feeling at times like a pin cushion and others like a medical oddity.
“Lots of tubes in and out of me,” Schlemmer said.
Her diet was so restrictive she couldn’t eat or drink the things she craved.
“I don’t think I drank water or had liquid food for about three weeks,” Schlemmer said.
Her diet remained heavily monitored throughout her recovery.
“I had nutritionists, dieticians, doctors all working on what I could eat,” Schlemmer said.
Eventually, the restrictions were lifted and she was given the green light to eat whatever she felt she could handle.
Her first meal of choice? Buffalo Wild Wings of course.
“Oh, so many wings,” Schlemmer said.
She went with the honey BBQ wings — plenty savory but not overly spicy.
“I still can barely do some spicy stuff,” Schlemmer said. “Little things upset my stomach, so I had to start off easy.”
Plus, she’s learned the pancreas is sensitive to everything, spicy or not.
“After I eat, I tend to have hiccup fits because my pancreas tends to get inflamed,” Schlemmer said with a chuckle.
The fact she can laugh about the humorous times and talk openly and honestly about the scariest moment of her young life is a miracle in itself. It’s the night she was rushed from Ellison Poulton Stadium to Blessing Hospital with no one knowing exactly what was wrong and shocked how a collision with the opposing goalkeeper left her fighting to survive.
‘She was very pale’
The day before the Wildcats were scheduled to play host to Benedictine in a Heart of America Athletic Conference matchup, they added a wrinkle off a restart.
On a free kick from midfield, C-SC worked on sending five players running toward the penalty area to put pressure on the goal. Less than 10 minutes into the game, such a scenario happened.
The ball was flighted into the attacking third, hopped over the intended target and bounded toward the box. Schlemmer, a freshman defender from Troy (Ill.), kept running with the ball, while Benedictine goalkeeper Olivia Berry came charging out.
“I was looking up in the air to see the ball,” Schlemmer said. “She jumped up to grab it and her knee went straight into my stomach and knocked me down.”
She didn’t get up.
“Oh, god, I don’t even know how to describe it,” Schlemmer said. “At first I thought I had just gotten the wind knocked out of me. But after a little bit, it felt like something was stabbing me on the inside. I couldn’t figure out if it was just the wind getting knocked out of me or if it was something worse.”
The C-SC trainer was waved onto the field and helped her to the sideline.
“My response at the time was this happens every game, maybe she got the wind knocked out of her,” C-SC coach Tyler Tomlinson said. “Our trainers were out there a little longer than usual. So then you start thinking maybe it’s a concussion, maybe she hit her head.”
Tomlinson turned his attention back to the game.
A few minutes later, he went over to the trainer’s table to check on Schlemmer.
“She was very pale,” Tomlinson said. “She was not holding consciousness. Her eyes were rolling back in her head, and they were trying to keep her awake. Our trainer told me they had called the ambulance. They told me they were really concerned about internal bleeding.”
Schlemmer didn’t think it was anything serious, not enough to warrant too much fuss.
“I was telling the trainers not to have my mom come up because I still at that point thought it was nothing big,” said Schlemmer, who is from St. Louis. “My boyfriend, who was at the game, was freaking out. My mom ended up driving 2.5 hours to come to the hospital. She got there right before surgery.”
Doctors discovered the collision had lacerated Schlemmer’s pancreas and caused major internal bleeding. She spent nearly three hours in the emergency room at Blessing Hospital waiting for a surgeon to be flown in from Chicago.
When Schlemmer’s mom arrived while her daughter was being prepped for surgery, they learned how serious things were.
“The surgeons warned my mom I might not make it,” Schlemmer said. “The fact I lost so much blood in a short amount of time was insane.”
That’s the moment Schlemmer worried she might die.
“I remember I was laying there and I look over and he’s drawing my insides on the whiteboard and explaining to my mom where I was bleeding from and what to expect coming out of the surgery,” she said.
Meanwhile, outside the hospital, Tomlinson and Schlemmer’s teammates waited for word she’d be OK. While time passed, excruciatingly slow according to those left in the parking lot due to COVID-19 restrictions, Tomlinson reached out to friends in the medical field for clarification.
“They were giving me the breakdown on how it was really rare because it’s such a protected organ,” Tomlinson said. “Usually the only injuries to the pancreas come from either an automobile accident or a stabbing.”
It made a tense situation a little more tough to bear.
“I was pretty shaken,” Tomlinson said. “I was reaching out and talking to professionals and they were telling me I needed to understand this is pretty serious. I appreciated that. It didn’t make me feel any better, but it did make me understand the gravity of the situation. That was helpful, but also scary.”
It was after midnight when Tomlinson received a phone call the surgery had been successful and Schlemmer was in recovery.
But the phone call came with one caveat.
“She tested positive for COVID,” Tomlinson said.
So the Wildcats went into a two-week quarantine while Schlemmer began her recovery.
Road to recovery
Three days after the surgery, Schlemmer was transported to Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where she underwent another small procedure because doctors feared she had an aneurysm and spent nearly five weeks without being allowed visitors from her team or her coaching staff.
“We texted a lot,” Tomlinson said. “Depending on how she was feeling, sometimes we FaceTimed. For a while, she couldn’t talk because she was being tubed fed.”
It didn’t deter her from remaining a part of the program.
She continued taking classes online and watched every C-SC soccer game via the livestream
“Watching our soccer games was the highlight of my days,” Schlemmer said. “I got to see our team and how we were doing. That kept my spirits up.”
That was needed.
“The first week after surgery I was pretty drugged up,” Schlemmer said. “I remember the big things that happened, but the little conversations or stupid things I said, I could not tell you about those. I still remember where I was and what was happening to me.
“I definitely felt the pain. It wasn’t masked by the drugs.”
She even endured a moment where she thought she was dying.
“I was seeing people who were deceased, so I thought that was me seeing the light,” Schlemmer said. “That part was probably the scariest. That’s when I thought I was going to die. But I was like, ‘Nah, this can’t happen.’”
Eventually, she knew she’d be OK.
“I don’t think that thought went through my head until I was able to walk around the floor I was on or take a sip of water,” Schlemmer said. “For the longest time, I had tubes and IVs coming out everywhere. I could not get out of bed for weeks. I couldn’t move or do much without pain.
“So I don’t think that thought went across my head until I could do simple everyday things.”
Steadily, those everyday things happened.
She walked. She talked. She finished her classes online. She grew stronger by the day and more determined by the minute.
Finally, just before Thanksgiving, she was released from the hospital to finish her recovery at home.
“It was more of a surreal moment,” Schlemmer said. “When you’re in the hospital for that long, you forget there’s an outside world going on. Leaving and being able to walk outside and see the cars go by and breathe fresh air, it kind of hit me.
“Going home and going back to normal life, being in a room where I’m not monitored 24/7 or have someone with me all the time was really weird. It definitely got better as time went on.”
By December, she started working out with light weights. By January, she was doing limited touches with a soccer ball. By February, she was back on the C-SC campus. By March, she was back playing a game she doesn’t want to give up.
“I would take videos of me right out of the hospital,” Schlemmer said. “I barely had enough strength to stand up, let alone drag a ball across my body. I slowly started getting better. I started to hop with the ball a little bit, and it just kept going from there.”
For a short period after leaving the hospital, she still had one tube extending from her midsection. Once doctors removed it, her recovery hit a faster pace.
“I started doing Yoga everyday just to get flexibility and to get my muscles moving, so when they told me I could start exercising, I would be ready for it,” Schlemmer said. “They said me doing Yoga beforehand definitely helped with my recovery.”
The real challenge was getting back on the field.
Defying the odds
No one rushed Schlemmer. No one even expected her to play this spring.
“I’ve told her 100 times, ‘If you don’t want to play anymore, just don’t play,’” Tomlinson said.
Before that could be decided, she had to re-acclimate herself to campus life and the daily grind college student-athletes endure. She hadn’t been on the C-SC campus since early October when classes began in January.
“It felt like forever,” Schlemmer said. “It felt like coming back to campus for the first time. It felt like I was never there before.”
It rejuvenated herself and her team.
“Refreshing,” Tomlinson said. “In a lot of different aspects, it was refreshing. One, she’s such a good person to be around. She’s a really, really positive person, a caring person. The team gravitates toward her. It was refreshing to know, even if she doesn’t get cleared to play soccer, she’s back to her normal life of being a college kid and being with her friends.”
The return to the soccer field wasn’t quite so harmonious.
“The dad came out in me,” Tomlinson said. “It was quite scary.”
Yet, he was overcome with happiness to see her back.
“Joy would be a good word to describe it,” Tomlinson said. “I know she wants to be there, so I want her to be happy and feel that way.”
And she does.
“It means everything to me,” Schlemmer said. “Soccer has been in my life since I was 3 years old. I don’t really know life without it. When I didn’t have soccer for a few months, it was like I was living an alternate reality.”
Schlemmer participated in a majority of the Wildcats’ spring practices and played in two of their spring games. C-SC wrapped up its spring schedule this week, and Schlemmer made it through unharmed.
Of course, there were moments of concern for everyone when she’d get bumped or knocked down. But she never backed down, always popped back up and played with the same relentless attitude that earned her a scholarship and playing as a true freshman.
“Sierra has one speed,” Tomlinson said. “It’s like semi-truck speed. She doesn’t know any other way to play the game, which is why she’s so good. It’s also why she got hurt. When she’s going in for a tackle, she’s going in full on.”
She’s not about to change now.
“Once I got one tackle down and knew I was OK, I just went for it,” Schlemmer said. “There was no turning back.”
Not with the taste for competition finally satiated.