Mercyhurst’s women’s hockey team faces a monumental task this weekend in Boston.
But a hockey game—even an NCAA quarterfinal match that would send the Lakers to their third-consecutive Frozen Four—seems inconsequential when compared with the battle the team’s assistant coach, Kristen Cameron, has fought the past six months.
Cameron set out for a bicycle ride on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 12. She pedaled all the way to Summit Township, making her way at about 6 p.m. on the shoulder along a stretch of road at 9071 Peach St. when 50-year-old Erie resident Allen Francis Peters struck her with his 1979 Chevrolet Caprice.
Cameron was thrown 50 feet from her bicycle. Peters kept driving for another 300 yards, pulled over and examined his dented hood and shattered windshield.
He then drove home.
A witness followed him and reported his address to the police who then arrested him on 14 charges. He pleaded guilty to two DUI-related charges Tuesday and will face up to 10 years and six months in an April sentencing.
Cameron was rushed by ambulance to Hamot Medical Center, where, according to women’s hockey head coach Michael Sisti, “she needed two very long, very serious operations to stay alive.”
She suffered a broken back and three neck fractures. She has also been unable to walk, and a December report by Toronto’s National Post stated she was paralyzed from the chest down. By the end of 2010, she had been transported to a hospital in Toronto, where she has continued daily rehabilitation efforts.
These now include working on transfers from her bed to a wheelchair and strengthening her upper body in an attempt to regain independence.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Cameron said Monday morning by telephone in her first public comments to the Erie news media. “It takes time.”
Still, some of the hospital’s occupational and physical therapists tell Cameron that her drive and determination to earn back independence have put her rehabilitation ahead of schedule. She has steadily regained range of motion in her shoulders and hands since early January, honing in each day on small tasks like getting dressed.
Prior to the accident, Cameronwas just beginning her second season coaching at Mercyhurst. She helped the team reach the Frozen Four in 2010 by assisting with on-ice instruction, scouting, video breakdown and day-to-day office duties.
“(Coaches) Paul (Colontino) and Louis (Goulet) have had to handle her workload,” Sisti said with a smile, “so that’s been interesting.”
Well respected among the players, Sisti said she brings a dynamic aspect to the team’s staff because she is “closer in age to the girls, playing women’s hockey like the girls have.
Her team will be playing on the road Saturday against Boston University in the NCAA quarterfinals. Sixth-seeded Mercyhurst defeated BU in 2010 in Erie, and the Terriers will be out for revenge.
A complete team effort will be needed, Cameron said, offering some advice for the team.
“Just do it together, stay together as a team,” she said. “I think they’ve got to the point that they’re doing that.”
Mercyhurst’s play on the ice and several players’ visits to her hospital during academic and season breaks have provided Cameron inspiration.
“I can’t put into words how motivational they have been for me,” she said. “(It was) so great to see them.”
Cameron also acknowledged an outpouring of support she has received from all over Canada, from her home region of Prince Edward Island and from Mercyhurst. A Facebook support page for her and her parents, Brian and Joanne, has garnered more than 1,100 people, and countless fundraising events have taken place on both sides of the border.
“It’s been really tough at times,” said the 25-year-old Cameron. “I have little things around my room at the hospital, and it’s just to remind me every day that there is so much support for me.”
“It’s done nothing but help the recovery process,” she said.
The motivational relationship between Cameron and her players is symbiotic. They’re playing for a championship this season as much for her as they are for themselves, for Mercyhurst and for Erie, Sisti said.
“This is (a year) that made the girls grow up,” he said. “It’s a real life situation. It’s very traumatic.”
Cameron declined to speak about the past—the collision or the man who caused it. Perhaps the early success of her rehabilitation stems from that focus on the future.
And should she watch, from her hospital bed, the Lakers win this weekend, her focus will shift to making the three-and-a-half hour trip from her hospital to Tullio Arena for the semifinals on March 17.
“As long as everything falls into place,” she said, “I should be there.”