Up until the moment she was intubated in a Finnish hospital, Janine Alder remembers everything. She remembers going about her daily routine. She remembers her performance against Team USA. She remembers standing in the shower, the dizziness, the sense that something wasn’t right. And what she will never be able to forget is the feeling of losing all control.
It was early April at the 2019 World Championship in Espoo, Finland, and the then-23-year-old was fresh off of arguably the most physically taxing performance of her career. Despite an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the eventual gold medal-winning American squad, Alder had stood on her head, making 49 stops in the Swiss crease, the most of any keeper in any round-robin contest at the tournament in what was only her second career start on the world stage. But as Alder returned to the team hotel, the nausea began to set in. As she showered, she felt as though she was intoxicated. And as she sat with teammates for a post-game meal, her body began to cramp. She was suffering status epilepticus, a potentially life-threatening seizure. “I was laying there, I could hear everyone talk around me and I could hear our team doctor tell me what to do and tell me to open my eyes, but I was unable to do it and show him that I was still there,” Alder said. “He tried to get my body to produce adrenaline with some little tricks, like pushing his thumbs in my eyeballs to get me to produce adrenaline and come back out of my seizure state, and I felt all that pain, but I couldn’t react.”
After she was rushed to a nearby neurological center, doctors worked quickly to save Alder’s brain. Intubation was necessary to provide her brain with the necessary oxygen, and she went into an induced coma, where she remained for four days. But one question remained. What had caused the seizure in a premier athlete who had no history of or genetic predisposition to epilepsy?
It wasn’t one single thing that triggered the seizure. Instead, it was a perfect storm. Overhydrating with nothing but tap water during her pre-game preparation resulted in her unintentionally flooding her system. Then, she had exhausted her body in the game. Given the amount of exertion, she sweated so much that her body had a perilously low sodium level.
But even after awaking from the coma, her brain having been saved by the medical team in Finland, Alder’s battle wasn’t over. To hear her tell it, the hardest test was still to come. The intubation had caused Alder to develop pneumonia. She required an oxygen mask and 100 percent of her oxygen had to be provided from an external source. “I couldn’t even stand up and walk over to the restroom and come back without almost dying,” Alder said. “That was probably the most scary part because it was something that I saw. My brain, how it was injured, I didn’t see. But my lungs not functioning, I saw that and I felt that.”
It was two weeks before Alder, accompanied by a Swiss doctor, was able to leave the hospital and return home. It was another three months before she began to feel like herself. Slowly, her motor skills returned, she was allowed to drive again, and the symptoms, some of which Alder compared to those associated with post-concussion syndrome, began to dissipate. During that time, Alder took her recovery, specifically mentally and emotionally, into her own hands, penning a book, which, translated, is titled The First Thought. “The writing process helped me a lot to now talk about it,” she said. “I’m able to share. I almost feel an obligation to share the story to make people aware that something like this can happen and maybe also help prevent something like this.”
In July, Alder began to feel as though her body was returning to normal, and that same month she made her return to the ice at a goalie camp hosted by compatriots and former NHL netminders Martin Gerber and David Aebischer. She strapped on her gear without telling anyone what she had been through. And her first day at camp, she felt like herself. It was a feeling she has difficulty explaining, but she said it was as though her body and her brain had no idea what they had been through the moment she stepped back on the ice. But for that – and for the ability to return to class at St. Cloud State University and to play out her senior season with the NCAA’s Huskies – she counts her lucky stars. “I could have had a major brain injury, I could have had memory loss,” Alder said. “I’m just overwhelmingly happy about how the situation turned out, and I’m even more grateful to have the opportunity to be a Div. 1 athlete again and be at my level.”