Something was wrong. Lauren Rodrigues was a few months old at the time and had hardly stopped crying since she was born. Her parents were concerned and took her to the doctor for tests. Following an MRI, Rodrigues was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a condition caused by excess fluid in the brain that causes great pressure and pain. There is currently no cure – it can only be managed. At 9 months old, she had her first brain surgery.
During that first surgery as an infant, the doctors installed a shunt in her brain that drains the excess fluid into her abdomen. The shunt allowed Rodrigues to live her elementary school years as a normal kid, but in sixth grade things unraveled quickly. Her shunt failed three times that year, resulting in three brain surgeries. The second time, Rodrigues was slurring her words and nearly in a coma by the time her family had driven from their home in Eugene, Ore., to Oregon Health & Science University for immediate surgery. The third time, she was transported by Life Flight.
The MRIs from that year also revealed a brain tumor, which was likely the original cause of her hydrocephalus. It was non-cancerous, but in a location where it was also inoperable. Because it didn’t present any immediate threat to her, doctors decided to observe rather than treat it.
During her freshman year of high school, Rodrigues began experiencing vision and balance problems and chronic headaches. “My tumor had started to grow,” she recalls. “The doctors put me on an aggressive chemotherapy regimen that took a toll on me physically, mentally and emotionally.” She was on chemotherapy for two and a half years to shrink its size, wrapping up treatment right before her senior year.
“Those years of chemo were so difficult, but I grew dramatically in my faith during that time. I had to lean on God because there was nothing else I could do,” Rodrigues says. “I was blessed to also have a support system of people who reminded me that my health battles didn’t define who I was then or who I am now.”
Now a sophomore at George Fox, Rodrigues loves soccer and excels on the field, fueled by her competitive drive and natural athletic instincts. She’s played since she was 5 years old. Soccer has powered her through medical challenges, and those challenges have in turn become a big part of the reason she plays. “Soccer allows me to share a piece of who I am,” she says. “The reason I’m out there is to show people that you can pursue and strive for what you want to do, no matter what your circumstances are.”
Rodrigues’ doctors allow her to play the sport she loves, though her medical issues make recovery between games more difficult. She’s as capable as anyone else on the field – it’s just a matter of how much pain she is willing to endure. She has continuous muscle and nerve pain due to the surgeries and treatments she’s undergone, much of which has settled into her back. She combats the discomfort and stiffness with injections, tension-releasing therapy, postural restoration and many other treatments. There is no magic formula.
For that reason, Rodrigues is taking a year away from the George Fox women’s soccer team to continue rehabilitating. Last season – her freshman year – took a toll on her body, and she recovers more slowly than most as a result of the years of chemotherapy. Her presence on the field is missed, but her leadership is still felt. The midfielder is instead the team manager this year, and her uniform sits untouched in head coach Cory Hand’s office, waiting for her return next season.
Hand remembers the first time he watched Rodrigues play. It was during her junior year of high school while she was in the Olympic Development Program and still on chemotherapy treatments, unbeknownst to him and the Division II and NAIA coaches who were recruiting her.
“She had extra emotion and extra drive, and you could tell that there was something carrying her,” Hand recalls. “There was no hesitation in the way she played. She had composure, she had direction and she had purpose.”
When Rodrigues first visited George Fox, she was fielding scholarship offers from larger universities. But she was looking for something specific: a program that wouldn’t see her medical history as a burden, but rather an integral piece of who she is and why she loves the game.
Hand vividly recalls that Rodrigues’ questions were purposeful. “She was extremely sincere from the first moment I met her. There was significance to what she had to say.” With tears in her eyes, she confided in him and shared her story – the first college coach she’d felt comfortable being vulnerable with. Shortly after, she turned down those athletic scholarships from other schools and became a Bruin.
Hand says that having Rodrigues as part of the team doesn’t just make her stronger, it makes the team stronger because of who she is. “She is strong, bold and courageous in all aspects of her life, and soccer is just an expression of that,” he says. And he’s right. These days you’ll find Rodrigues smiling as she walks through the George Fox campus with her friends and soccer teammates. She’s pursuing a nursing degree with the end goal of helping and inspiring patients the way her medical team has done for her the past two decades.
“I am still living with hydrocephalus and a tumor, and I still battle with my health every day,” she says. “My hope is that with medical advancements I won’t have to deal with these things anymore. But I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, because all of our futures are uncertain. I put this in God’s hands because he knows what he’s doing.”