Sometimes in the wake of tragedy, there is fortitude. The Penn softball team has found such strength from its former teammate Jen Retzer, who graduated in 2015, and sustained a traumatic brain injury while skiing last month at Stratton Mountain in Vermont.
On February 4, Retzer was found unresponsive by ski patrollers, and she was airlifted while in a coma to the intensive care unit at Albany Medical Center. Despite wearing a helmet, Retzer fractured her skull and damaged her cerebellum, the region of the brain primarily responsible for coordinating movement. Doctors told her mother, Karen Retzer, not to be optimistic.
“They had told us that she had a very bad injury and that she probably wasn’t going to wake up,” she said. “It was horrible.”
The day of the accident, coach Leslie King sent an email to her team to inform them of what had happened. Although only the juniors and seniors on the roster had played with Retzer, all of the current members of the team had the chance to meet her when she returned to campus for an alumni mentorship event in January.
According to senior Lainey Dorris, Retzer only needed that one afternoon with the underclassmen to make an impression.
“You’d talk to her and she would always put a smile on your face, she was always very supportive, not one to complain,” Dorris said. “I don’t think anyone has had a bad experience with her.”
As a show of support, every member of the team wrote letters to Jen for Ms. Retzer to read to her daughter. The team also created a fundraising page for Retzer on Generosity.com that has raised $27,796 from 316 donors as of March 20.
“We really talked about perspective and think about her every day and every practice,” Dorris said. “I really think that it’s helping the team become close.”
“A few of us write, either with a sharpie on our wrist or on our headbands, Jen’s initials, JR, and her number, 15, to remind ourselves constantly of her,” Dorris added.
During her time in University City, Retzer made a profound impact on the Penn softball program despite not playing a single inning after her freshman year when she herniated a disc in her back. The injury was career-ending for a pitcher like Jen, but she chose to stay on the team because “she felt she had so much more to contribute,” said her mother.
“She literally would show up to every single 6 a.m. pitching practice with a smile on her face and a coffee in her hands ready to do what she could,” senior captain Sydney Kranzmann said. “I don’t know someone who just lived life more fully than she did.”
During games, Retzer brought an infectious energy to the team. “She’s always someone who would cheer everyone on, even when the team was doing bad, even though her back was hurt and she couldn’t play," recalled Dorris. "It didn’t matter; she was there and she was really in it.”
Coach King recognized Retzer’s resilience and honored her with the program’s Coach’s Award in 2013, 2014 and 2015 — a three-peat of no insignificance. It is exactly that spirit that Dorris, Kranzmann and their teammates hope to channel by wearing “JR” during practices and games. Later in the season, the team will don “JR 15” patches on their jerseys during Ivy League competition.
After initially sending letters, the team wanted to do more to support Retzer and decided to dedicate their season to their former teammate.
“Coach King was very clear from the beginning that she didn’t want it to be a remembrance. She didn’t want it to be saying that Jen was gone,” Kranzmann said. “She wanted it to be more highlighting the fact that Jen is fighting and we’re behind her and she is someone who completely embodies the spirit of Penn softball.”
True to form, Retzer has made astounding progress in the six weeks since her accident. After spending three weeks in a coma at Albany Medical Center, Retzer was transferred to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J. Upon arrival, she emerged into a semi-conscious state and began to flutter her eyelids and wiggle her fingers. In the last two weeks, she has slowly begun to regain greater movement of her body, the ability to speak and increased awareness.
“This week her therapist called her the rock star of 2017 because she woke up right away,” her mother said.
At the moment her words are only whispers, but she has near full recollection of her life before the accident.
“One question that made us really laugh was, ‘Who is the owner of the Blarney Stone?’ and she was like ‘Kevin!'” Ms. Retzer said. “So we were like, ‘Oh my god, she remembers everything.'”
Remarkably, Retzer was not paralyzed in the accident, and it appears that the only part of her body affected by the trauma is her brain.
“It’s just going to take a lot of time and it’s going to be a very long recovery, but she is going to do it,” her mother said. “Her brain now has to connect to her body, she has to teach herself how to walk, how to talk, how to sit. All those things.”
To help keep her brain engaged, Ms. Retzer plays audio clips with messages from loved ones for her daughter on a near constant loop. The need for new audio messages has given Retzer’s former teammates a way to stay involved with her recovery.
“We’ve been sending her audio clips after games and practices during our spring trip in Florida,” said Kranzmann. “We want to keep doing that for as long as we can and as long as [Ms. Retzer] will take them.”
On Saturday, the team will be helping host a fundraiser for Retzer at the Blarney Stone, a campus bar where Retzer bartended for a time during her college years. All proceeds from the $40-a-ticket open bar will go towards funding Retzer’s medical bills.
Due to the unpredictable nature of brain injuries, there is no concrete timeline for Retzer’s recovery and ultimate departure from Kessler. But neither Ms. Retzer nor her daughter are daunted by the long road ahead.
“We’re not leaving until she walks out of here.”
And Penn softball plans to walk with her the whole way through.