ST. CLOUD, Minn. — As a college student in a foreign country and a goalie on an NCAA Division I women's hockey team, Janine Alder needs to process things quickly in her mind. A native of Switzerland, she has to translate lessons given to her in English and, on the ice, she needs to react quickly to stop as many pucks as she can.
Alder, who speaks five languages, has clearly been successful translating her first three school years at St. Cloud State, being named a WCHA Scholar-Athlete each of the last two seasons as a mass communications major. To earn scholar-athlete status, students must have at least one year prior at their respective institution and have a grade-point average of at least 3.50 on a 4.0 scale for the previous two semesters (or three quarters), or may qualify if their overall GPA is at least 3.50 for all terms at the institution.
She has also been a member of the last two Swiss Olympic women's hockey teams and her career save percentage (.930) and career goals-against average (2.55) are both tops in St. Cloud State's history going into this season.
All of that came to an abrupt stop on April 7 when Alder suffered an epileptic seizure after playing a game for Switzerland in the IIHF Women's World Championships in Espoo, Finland.
"I was talking after the game and was perfectly fine," said Alder, who made 49 saves in an 8-0 loss to Team USA that night. "As soon as the adrenaline was out of my body, it started like a slow cramping and I lost control over my body. My brain was still functioning, but I couldn't control my body anymore. I didn't respond to the team doctor and he said, 'We have to go to the hospital now.'"
Once she got to the hospital, doctors induced a coma to help Alder recover from the trauma of the seizure.
"I was in such a deep status epilepticus, a state where you can't come back into the real world, so they need to put you into a coma and cool you down so the brain can reconnect," she said of the type of seizure that lasts for more than five minutes. "During the seizure, the brain waves go crazy. So they had to do it to save the brain from any injury."
Alder was kept in a coma for 4 1/2 days and then spent a total of two weeks in a hospital in Finland. She then had to be transported by ambulance from the hospital to the airport and get on a plane back to Zurich, Switzerland, accompanied by a physician.
Alder said that she does not have epilepsy and, amazingly, has had few side effects from the event. She is likely to play this weekend for the Huskies when they play host to Ohio State in the first WCHA series of the regular season. The teams play at 6:07 p.m. Friday and 2:07 p.m. Saturday at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
Getting back into uniform for the Huskies was something that Alder was not sure would happen.
How it happened
First of all, how does a 24-year-old, world-class athlete who does not have epilepsy end up having a seizure? The 5-foot-5 Alder said that one of the reasons why is she drank too much water earlier in the day.
"I flooded my whole system. I was sweating so much during the game because it was a tough game for us," she said. "So after that, the sodium level (in my body) was out of control. It was too low. So there was a chemical reaction in my brain.
"I would have never expected anything like this. They say that this is more common in endurance sports."
Alder played the entire game and spoke with teammates and her parents, Rolf and Gaby, at the rink after the game was over. She talked so much that she was late for the bus back to the team's hotel.
"In the bus back to the hotel, I felt nausea. I went upstairs to my hotel room to shower and in the shower, I felt almost like I was drunk," she said. "Everything was very distant. What should I do now?
"I'm going to go downstairs and try to eat something — maybe it'll help. As soon as I sit down at the table, I couldn't eat anything. I was nipping on a glass of water. A teammate of mine brought the team doctor to me because I was acting weird. As soon as he sat next to me, I just fell into myself and couldn't control it. My mind was there."
She said she felt more confused than scared as the seizure was happening.
"I felt weird that I got so much attention from everyone and everyone was freaking out," she said. "I don't like so much attention. They tried to get me back with some adrenaline to get me out of the psychological border, but there was no psychological problem. There was a physical problem."
Alder's parents were with her at the hospital when the coma was induced.
"They were happy that they were able to be there to see what was happening and also felt assured that the people that were there knew what they were doing," she said.
While she was recovering in the hospital, she caught pneumonia.
"That was almost tougher to recover from than the seizure," Alder said. "I was on a fairly high dose of antibiotics for a couple weeks. To make sure another seizure didn't happen, I was put on epileptic medication. I was able to fairly quickly get rid of those because they were making me so tired. I was basically sleeping 20 out of 24 hours. I cannot recover like this."
She also had a brain scan and was not able to drive a car for three months before a second brain scan determined there was no permanent damage.
As she began recovering at home, something unusual happened for Alder.
"The first couple days I went back home were the most peaceful days I've ever experienced in my life," said Alder, who describes herself as someone who typically worries a lot. "I was able to give myself this free time because I knew something wasn't right. I was just sleeping and I was just there. I wasn't thinking about how I need to be at some other place.
"My mind is always running. I sometimes wish I could turn it off."
Alder did not rush through the recovery process, even as it started getting closer to the time for her to go back to school in August.
"What helped me a lot was the recovery process was slow, but it was still fast enough to give me hope that I would get better again," she said. "My biggest fear was that my brain wouldn't be at the speed it used to be.
"The second week at the hospital, I was struggling with handwriting and talking. That was the scariest part. After that, I was overcome with, 'Will I ever be an athlete again? Will I ever be back on the ice again?'"
She got back on the ice for the first time on July 11 and took part in an annual goalie camp outside Bern, Switzerland.
"I went to that goalie camp the last 13 years," she said. "What was encouraging was to hear from the coaches on the ice, 'You're not as stressed and not gripping your stick so tight. What happened? Why are you so relaxed?'
"I was surprised about myself and it was encouraging to hear from the coaches that they felt something (different about me), even if they didn't know what happened. I was just enjoying being there."
She wrote a book about it
Two months before she came back to school, she wrote a 65-page book about her experience in German. She said the translated title is, "The First Thought."
"When I was sedated, the first thought of my parents was, 'Is she going to wake up? Is she going to survive?'" Alder said. "I basically didn't experience the whole thing. The people around me experienced it far more than I did because I was asleep. I was focusing on recovering. It was tough to listen to the people around me.
"My first idea was to let my parents let go of the whole experience. If they see the book, they say, 'OK, it's done and we can move on.'"
Alder was voted St. Cloud State's captain for this season. She had seven saves in one period of play in a 3-0 exhibition win over the University of Regina on Sept. 28.
"She looks like she usually does, but even more composed, which is hard to say because she was pretty composed as a freshman," said Huskies head coach Steve Macdonald, who began recruiting Alder in 2012 when he was an assistant coach at Minnesota Duluth. "There's a different persona, a different calmness to her. She's always been a calm, cool, collected goaltender. Now she has even more confidence that is really exciting to see after, obviously, having quite a life experience over the summer."