By Ashley Dalton as told to Brian Burnsed
In late August, my teammates and I had just finished our preseason training for the upcoming volleyball season, and we were at a team bonding and leadership training event. I don’t remember anything from that day, but I’ve been told I ran up a hill as part of an activity, turned around with a very confused look on my face, then collapsed. I was shaking – they thought I was having a seizure.
People on the scene gave me CPR, but I had gone into cardiac arrest. I was clinically dead for a full five minutes before the paramedics arrived and gave me a shock with an automatic external defibrillator.
I was in a coma for two days, and they implanted a defibrillator after diagnosing me with Long QT syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder. I remember waking up in the hospital and asking how soon I would be able to return to the court. One of the doctors said, “You’re never going to play a physically demanding sport in college again.” It was a huge blow because it was my senior season. He left the room, and I looked over at my husband and said, “He’s wrong.”
The recovery wasn’t easy. It required a lot of patience, and I was limited only to slow movements at first. I’d go on walks. I would walk a block, eventually a mile. After a few weeks I was able to start putting more time and effort, at least 30 minutes every day, into working out. Then I would go 31 minutes, then 32 minutes. I would go just a little bit more each day.
When the doctors saw I was dedicated to working hard to come back, they said, “We don’t give 24-year-olds internal cardiac defibrillators just so they can sit at home and watch TV. We want you to live your life. If living your life is coming back and playing volleyball, then we want you to do it.”
Six weeks after I collapsed, I went to the doctor and got cleared to play in the next day’s practice. I called my coach and I told her; we were both very excited, and I asked her to keep it private. I had been coming to all of the practices, but not in the full gear. So when I walked into the gym the next day wearing my knee pads and practice shirt, my teammates knew what it meant.
I have never felt so much love in my entire life. They applauded, then it was a massacre – they came over and tackled me. Everybody gave me hugs, and there were a bunch of tears. I have never felt such team unity before. We were a family; I was their sister. They were all rooting for me. They all knew how much it meant to me, and I knew how much it meant to them.
Even though they knew the doctors had said I would never come back, they also knew I was giving everything I had to be there for them. That seemingly small win of simply showing up for practice showed us that, together, we could achieve anything. It was a huge success for our team.
By the conference tournament, I was finally able to start playing full games. When we came to regionals, we started to click together on the court, and we made it to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.
I wasn’t able to contribute in a way that I wanted to, but I had already accomplished what I set out to do. My team wanted to win because of the success that I had. Being able to play for something more than just a championship mattered to all of us.