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The comeback kick

How a teenage track star survived a brain hemorrhage and beat the odds to recovery

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Carly Coughlin is only 15, but she has a natural kick that most adult long-distance runners train years to build. It’s when she’s near exhaustion, five people deep, and another lap from the finish line, when she feels her surge start to come, an inner reserve that pushes her forward to third, second, and oftentimes first.

But on February 1, 2015, that pent-up energy in her teenage body that was always there when she needed it vanished. She had to lie down.

The air that day was raw with cold—too cold for a run around Carly’s coastal Yarmouth Port home on the Cape. So she had opted for the exercise bike instead of her usual three-mile loop around the neighborhood. But she cut her ride short.

“When she made the decision to bike versus run that day…that was the first thing that saved her life,” said Carly’s mother, Joanne.

Joanne was in the kitchen cooking up family favorites for Super Bowl Sunday, a day that felt like a holiday to a Patriots fan like Carly.

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After a few minutes on the exercise bike, Carly came into the kitchen complaining of a bad headache. Joanne told her to lie down and rest. But within minutes it became clear that this was no ordinary headache. As she grew increasingly unresponsive, Joanne and Steve, Carly’s father, called 911.

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Somewhere between the ambulance ride and her arrival at Cape Cod Hospital, Carly’s condition worsened. Before she came out of her CT scan, the doctor had already called a med flight to whisk her to Boston Children’s Hospital. She was in critical condition.

“The doctor told us it could be one of two things, and neither of them are good,” Joanne recalled. Doctors suspected she either had an aneurysm or what’s called an arteriovenus malformation (AVM), a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in her brain .

Joanne boarded the med flight with Carly bound for Boston, and she remembered from there, “Everything happened very quickly.”

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The rush to save a life

The moment they landed on the roof of Boston Children’s, hospital staff was there waiting to take them to where Carly would be treated. While Joanne was by Carly’s side, her dad, older sister, and brother were all converging on the hospital by car.

There were more hospital personnel waiting to take them to where Carly was being cared for so they could see each other before surgery.  

“It’s an amazing process,” said Joanne. “A whole team including security meets you, and you are escorted rapidly through tunnels and hallways and elevators.”

Carly and her mother would leave one group only to be picked up by another. “There were at least 15 people in the room waiting for her by the time she got there,” Joanne said.

Carly Coughlin (right) with her mother Joanne (left)Carly Coughlin (right) with her mother Joanne (left)

And another key person was en route. When Joanne first saw Dr. Edward Smith, director of pediatric cerebrovascular surgery at the hospital, he was sprinting toward her and Steve, white coat in hand.

“He told us that it was life threatening and that he could not guarantee that she would come out of the surgery, but that he would treat her as if she were his own daughter,” Joanne said.

There was no time to print a 3D model of Carly’s brain, as Dr. Smith would typically do before this type of surgery.

“She came in very sick, where she had deteriorated to being in a coma. It was a matter of time,” said Dr. Smith.

For Carly’s family and for Dr. Smith, it would be a long evening. It was easy to measure just how long because it also happened to be Super Bowl Sunday.

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Carly pre-surgery in Disneyland with her siblingsCarly (center) in Disney World with her siblings before her AVM rupture

Carly emerged from surgery with 200 stitches on the right side of her head and another trail where her hair had once parted.

The surgery had revealed an AVM in her Carly’s right temporal lobe. This abnormal connection between Carly’s arteries and veins had caused bleeding into the brain, which is what caused her to first feel an extreme headache.

“Dr. Smith told us that if she had gone for a run we most likely would never have found her in time because these things progress so quickly,” said Joanne.

A star-studded recovery

When Carly woke up, she opened her eyes to a room full of doctors, nurses, and her family.

“Did we win the Super Bowl?” she asked.

It was a promising sign.

A doctor came forward to show her the clip of Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception. Once she had been assured the Patriots won the Super Bowl, she answered a litany of questions.

“Do you know what your name is?”

“Carly.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Boston Children’s Hospital.”

And then she slept.

When she woke the following day, she realized her head had been shaved. “Well, I guess I don’t need volumizing shampoo anymore,” she remembered telling her parents.

This was Carly’s first time staying in a hospital, having never even broken a bone. “But I never felt uncomfortable in any way,” she said. Joanne stayed at the hospital with Carly, sleeping on a small bed behind her daughter’s.

Despite her mom’s steadying presence, there were emotional ups and downs as Carly started to heal.

She was “super excited and laughing with her sister, or crying and a little angry,” said Joanne. Dr. Smith explained Carly’s roller-coaster emotions were part of the brain’s healing process.

“Dr. Smith was awesome. He had a good sense of humor and always wanted his patients to smile,” Carly said.  

Smiles come easy, of course, when the Boston Bruins show up in your hospital room. David Krejci and Dennis Seidenberg autographed hockey pucks for Carly, and even a couple more for her Bruins-obsessed friends. Even Malcolm Butler, now a Super Bowl hero, was due to visit the hospital while she was there.

“It was a stroke of luck,” said Carly. One of many, it seems, for this Boston sports fan.

When Carly became too tired to wait to see Malcolm Butler, a nurse waited in line with Carly’s stuffed bear and returned it to her signed by No. 21.

Going home

Carly had arrived in the trauma unit on a Sunday and was discharged by Friday. Doctors told her that even though being in great physical condition likely helped her recover as quickly as she did, she should take things slowly when she got home.

But Carly was thinking less about pacing herself and more about getting home to her two cats.

Carly was restricted to her home in the days following her discharge, spending most of her time watching movies with her brother and sister. Besides not being able to run, not being allowed to pick up the family cat, which weighed more than her doctor-mandated 20-pound limit, proved hardest.

As time went on, walking around the house turned into walking around the block once, and then another time, with her parents. But her sights were more ambitious.

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Dr. Smith demanded patience; he wanted her to work up to running, to focus on getting back to daily life. Always a straight-A student, Carly went back to school the week after she returned home.

“It was so good to see my friends,” she said, though many had already visited her at home. No one treated her like she was sick simply because she didn’t act like it.

“She was fearless,” Dr. Smith said.

How Carly got her kick back

It was this simple: Carly wanted to get back to running, so she did.

Carly was cleared to run 12 weeks after her surgery and competed in a track meet against Falmouth. “She had no kick that day,” said Joanne. “Her whole race was the equivalent of a kick in my opinion. It took great personal strength and courage to put herself in a competition that soon .”

When she reached the finish line, her teammates swarmed the track to hug her.

myfavoriteCarly at the marsh by her Yarmouth Port home

Now over one year later, Carly’s brain has completely healed.

She still has physical reminders of the surgery, like the long, thin scar on the right side of her head, now covered by curly, shoulder length hair. And there are new cautions from doctors and parents to not go on rollercoasters. Otherwise, it’s life as usual.

Except now when Carly doesn’t feel like running her familiar five-mile route, or she feels herself losing momentum in a race, she thinks of something her coach told her during recovery.

“‘There’s the hard practices, but then there’s the victory at the end.’ That was surgerythe hard practice,” she said.

“But when I finally got to the finish line, everything was back to normal.”

This spring, she ran a 5:46 mile, coming up from behind to set a personal record.

Carly got her kick back.

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's BG BrandLab in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.