Back in the Game: Duke Pieper’s Success Story


By Duke Pieper |

My life goal has always been to win the NHL Stanley Cup. When I was 15 years old, I thought I had a genuine shot at making it happen. After spending two years at Shattuck-St. Mary’s — a boarding school in Faribault, Minn., renowned for its hockey program — I joined the Hill-Murray High School  varsity hockey team in St. Paul, Minn., as a freshman in 2008. The Pioneers were the defending state champions; talent scouts came to every game.

The day of my first varsity game in early December, something just didn’t feel right. During warmups, I fell on the ice. The puck didn’t come off my stick with its usual smoothness. I had a fogginess in my brain and a pressure in my head.

I tried to tell myself it was nerves, a reaction to my first big televised game against a powerhouse rival. But playing hockey was like putting on my shoes — it was almost innate. I knew something was wrong and told my coach to take me out of the game.

An MRI scan later revealed a noncancerous lesion in my brain stem — a cavernous hemangioma — which was leaking blood, putting pressure on my cranial nerves.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the doctors had given me a 5 percent chance of surviving the surgery to remove the lesion; without the procedure, my chances were lower still. Several hospitals wouldn’t consider operating because the procedure was so rare and dangerous.

But I’m a bit of a risk taker, and I felt like I had to take action. So my  parents and I found a neurosurgeon willing to perform the surgery. On December 8, 2008, I was wheeled into the operating room, and my family said their goodbyes. None of us knew if I would come out alive.

I don’t remember anything for about two months after that.

Life on the Edge

My parents told me that, in the days following my surgery, they thought I was going to be OK. Then I contracted multiple infections I just couldn’t kick.

One infection landed on my spinal cord, paralyzing my whole body. All I remember are dreams and hallucinations. I couldn’t move. I wasn’t really conscious. More than once, the doctors told my parents that they should consider letting me go.

I gradually started to regain sensation. The feeling started in my toes and slowly worked its way to my upper body, improving my speech and my breathing. I was waking up.

Even though it had been months, it seemed like just yesterday that I could do a 200-pound squat in the weight room. Now I could barely lift my feet.

New Goals

When I finally left the hospital nine months after my first surgery, I was evaluated at a fourth-grade academic level. I could barely color a picture inside the lines, and I was walking about 10 steps at a time. My goal was to be a regular person, and to graduate on time, in the spring of 2012.

It wasn’t as simple as going back to school and studying hard. I was still battling the infection, so I had to be on IV antibiotics. Between that and my rehabilitation challenges, I was homebound for 18 months.

Coming home was good for me, though. In the hospital, I’d spent most days in bed. Now, I was forced to get up and walk to the kitchen or the bathroom. Progress came slowly, with incremental steps. I started walking down the driveway, then coming back. After three weeks, I could walk around the block.

The therapy was almost constant: physical therapy, occupational therapy, medical appointments, practicing basic motor skills around the house. School took a backseat while I got back on my feet. Gradually, we incorporated academic work: Both the school district where my family lives and Hill-Murray sent tutors and teachers to my house. I’d study for an hour here, two hours there.

I had been mostly confined to the ICU during my hospital stay, which meant only my family could visit. At home, I was so focused on getting back to normal that I was still pretty isolated. My friends sent cards and videos to stay in touch, but I still felt detached from my former life.

Returning to school was a shock. I had to redefine myself — and accept the new person I had become. I had to set new goals. It’s hard to do that in any circumstance; in high school it’s almost impossible.

I didn’t know how to approach my old friends and reconnect. Most of them didn’t really know what to say or do around me. And on top of it all, I felt sad and angry about losing hockey — my whole life had revolved around it.

I eventually made some new friends, and I stopped dreading days at school. With time, my social and educational pursuits fell into place: I graduated on time. I got my driver’s license on my first try.

In January 2010, the Minnesota Wild asked me to be the eighth person ever to drop the ceremonial puck before a game. I’d been trying not to think too much about losing that part of my life, but out there on the ice that night, something clicked: I wanted to get back into the game somehow.

I got my chance when I enrolled at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in the fall of 2012. The new hockey coach was revitalizing the program, and I was named a student-coach. Now I can review game films, design strategies, and participate in practices. I even get to tie on my skates a bit.

Reaching Out

I’ve learned that I have to keep an open mind: You really never know how something is going to turn out.

I used to be a quiet, introverted person. During my time in the hospital, I realized there were a lot of people facing obstacles like I was. If I couldn’t play hockey, then maybe I could do something to help others.

So I decided to tell my story, partnering with author Jim Bruton to write a book, I’m Alive: Courage, Hope, and a Miracle. I wanted to offer some perspective and coping techniques to people facing a life-altering moment.

I used to keep to myself; now I share all the details of my experience and how I worked through it in hopes that I can help someone else who’s dealing with a tough situation.

In a way, I believe this happened for a reason. It’s changed who I am, but not what I want: I still dream of winning the Stanley Cup. If I can’t hoist it as a player, I’m going to do it as a coach. Just watch.

Mark Derek “Duke” Pieper, 23, a student at Bowling Green State University.Recovering from a rare brain surgery and subsequent paralysis.“There is just no way I could have done this by myself. My parents and the community deserve so much credit. They all motivate and inspire me to grow toward a normal, productive future.” He adds that a few instances in his recovery can’t be explained by anything other than a higher power.Finding a mission to serve other people. “I truly believe this happened for a reason: I want to share with other people how I overcame my situation, and hopefully help them overcome theirs.” Focusing on theof the life he left behind, and on all the unknowns that lay ahead. “For me, it’s ultimately mind over matter. Anything can come to an end in a second. It’s how you handle it. If you have 100 negatives and one positive, that one positive point gets you through. The question I always ask is ‘What am I going to do about it?’”

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