After freshman year epilepsy diagnosis, senior goalkeeper brings ‘toughness’

In December 2016, now-senior water polo goalkeeper and public relations and advertising major Alyssa Welfringer was diagnosed with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy. Despite the diagnosis, Welfringer continued to play the sport at Chapman, adjusting her lifestyle to maintain her health. Photo by Jack Clendening

In early March 2016, Alyssa Welfringer was a freshman at Chapman, excited to play college water polo as a goalkeeper. She travelled up to Claremont, California, for a weekend tournament. The Friday before the drive, she fell asleep knowing she was a starter in the game against Claremont Mudd-Scripps the next morning.

But something quickly changed.

“When I woke up on Saturday, I felt really off,” Welfringer said.
When she got into the pool, she was freezing. She tried to tread water, but curled into a fetal position in the pool. She told head coach Eric Ploessel she couldn’t play, and while the team played the game, Welfringer slept on the bench under the team’s robes, overcome with chills.

Later that day, she woke up from a nap in the dorms with a 105-degree fever, so she called her mom to take her home to Huntington Beach. The next day, she was admitted to intensive care with what Welfringer said were “really bad vitals.”

She was treated as an unknown diagnosis, spending a week in the intensive care unit on a ventilator because she couldn’t breathe on her own.

“They just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” Welfringer said.

When she was released for a day, her fever was still high, so she was readmitted for another week.

“I ended up being in the hospital for two weeks, coming home during spring break still with an IV pole, coming back from spring break to the dorms with an IV pole,” Welfringer said. “For two weeks, I had to administer my own antibiotics through the IV in my dorm room three times a day.”

She played in seven games her freshman season, six of which were before the Claremont tournament. At the end of December 2016, following a grand mal seizure where her eyes rolled back in her head and her arms spasmed, Welfringer was diagnosed with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy.

While she was put on medication, Welfringer soon found that her main trouble was getting through the mental aspect of the brain disorder.

“I was very scared, because I didn’t understand what having epilepsy meant. When you go through season and you do a lot of heavy lifting and physical activities, your muscles get fatigued, so I had muscle twitching all the time,” Welfringer said. “Not getting enough sleep is something that makes me more likely to have a seizure, so I would just end up in these very hard panic attacks.”

But Welfringer slowly started to understand her condition more. The physical toll from hospital visits caused her to lose weight and muscle, but over time, she got back into shape by working out and learning how to get enough sleep.

Three years after being admitted to the hospital, Welfringer, now a senior majoring in Public Relations and Advertisement, walked down the hallway of the Lastinger Athletics Complex to Ploessel’s office March 5, the night before a game against the Occidental Tigers. Once inside, she repeated different versions of the phrase, “I need ice,” and tugged the bottom of her pants up to her knee, revealing a shin marked with black and blue welts.

“‘Eric, my whole legs are covered in bruises because I’ve been kicking people,’” Welfringer told Ploessel.

This season, the team’s defense has changed, inviting Welfringer to come out of the goal more than before and make contact with other field players.

Her journey throughout college and managing her diagnosis has led her to play her most aggressive season ever. After five straight losses to begin the season, women’s water polo has won four games.

“The biggest change is the toughness,” Ploessel said. “This is what I was probably most proud of, was the toughness I’m seeing.”

Welfringer said she sees herself as more of a leader, which took learning how to balance frustration. She’s more aggressive in the pool, but more measured. She said she’s learning how to transform that frustration into laughter.

“I’ve just had the most fun this season, and I think it’s visible,” Welfringer said. “It’s made me play stronger, to be able to want to be competitive, but also enjoy being competitive and not be angry.”

This season is the most important in her water polo career, Welfringer said, because she feels she’s the strongest she’s been since before her freshman year, before the tournament in Claremont and before she got sick.

After learning how to manage her epilepsy and the panic that it came with, Welfringer has focused more on simply playing the game.

“I would rather define myself as just an athlete, not necessarily as an athlete with epilepsy,” Welfringer said. “Because if I do what I need to do, it doesn’t affect my performance.”