Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
CHILLICOTHE — In the fourth set of a regular season volleyball match on Oct. 11, 2016, Southeastern’s Lauren Goebel hit a milestone — both in her sport and in her life.
Then a sophomore setter, Goebel passed out her 1,000th career assist that night. If you were there, you may remember her being congratulated by her teammates before she made her way into the crowd where she found her sister Logan and was met with an emotional embrace.
The two shared a brief exchange before Lauren hugged the rest of her family members in attendance and traveled back to the court. That process is the norm for when any player reaches 1,000 … whether that be assists, points, kills, strikeouts, etc.
But for the Goebel family, that night’s process and that night’s accomplishment was anything but normal. In fact, it was extraordinary, considering it could’ve very easily never happened.
You see, Lauren’s 1,000th represented much more than a number, or a career milestone, or a run-of-the-mill accomplishment. Lauren’s 1,000th signified a victory … a victory over a hospital bed, a victory over a serious sickness and a victory that proved her sense of perseverance.
When Being ‘Tough’ Isn’t Enough
Lauren’s love affair with the game of volleyball started in her own backyard. When Logan, at 10 years old, started playing the sport, her little sister became her test subject after practice.
“She’s my only sibling so everything I was learning, I was coming home and was like, ‘You’re my guinea pig and we’re going to play volleyball,’” Lauren said. “We started playing with rubber blow-up balls from Walmart. Didn’t even have a volleyball. But we couldn’t wait to play everyday. We’d get home from school and would just play for hours.”
All those hours eventually paid off. As Lauren entered her freshman year of high school, one of the first things on her to-do list was to follow in her sister’s footsteps and make the varsity volleyball team.
Not only did she obtain that goal but she landed a starting setter role within the program; a decision by head coach Jimmy Hutton that paved the way to an abundance of future success.
But as Lauren’s freshman year continued to progress, so did immense pain in her back — a pain that started over the prior summer and never left, and and a pain she originally brushed off as simply a pulled muscle.
Against her own will, Lauren went to multiple doctors to inquire about the never-ending uneasiness. The verdict? She had been right all along … a pulled muscle.
“Initially, she just starting having small complications. There were probably 15 or so doctor visits and they all said it was a pulled muscle,” Logan recalled. “So we just went with that and it wasn’t getting any better because she continued to play with it. Her whole attitude was ‘play through it and be tough.’ But sometimes, that can be problematic.”
While Lauren tried to hide her grimaces, the discomfort intensified.
“I just kind of held off telling anybody and started playing volleyball,” Lauren said. “I definitely wanted to keep going. I wasn’t going to have my back stopping me. I’d just take some Ibuprofen and play that day, take more and play the next day.”
Without thinking twice, Lauren was taking anywhere between four to eight pills per day.
It was a process that actually got her through her entire freshman year of volleyball. While the pain was there, and was admittedly worse on game days, Lauren continued to use Ibuprofen as a crutch and it continued to work.
That is, until her body couldn’t take it anymore.
After playing in 77 of the team’s 81 sets in 2015, and passing out 301 assists to start her career, Lauren finally had the chance to rest her back. But unfortunately, her body wasn’t cooperating with simple rest and relaxation.
“We finally ended our season and the pain never stopped, even after I was rested and stuff,” Lauren said. “If it was a pulled muscle, it would’ve stopped. My mom knew something was wrong because I was 15 and having bad back problems. The doctor told us that it was a pulled muscle, which made sense to a certain point but didn’t to where it was placed.”
That year, Lauren’s family took a trip to Washington D.C. for Christmas. For all the wrong reasons, it was one Lauren will never forget.
“On the trip, I got really sick and we had no idea why. I was running a fever, my blood pressure was high, I couldn’t use the bathroom. But we decided to wait it out,” Lauren said. “When we got home, it was before New Year’s, and I was still sick throughout it all.”
Still going through pain and still trying to “tough it out,” Lauren’s body didn’t give her that choice shortly after the family returned home. Instead, she made her first trip to an emergency room just after the holiday season.
Searching For Answers
On Jan. 2, 2016, Lauren was still running a fever and still couldn’t hardly go to the bathroom. In effect, her parents decided to take her to the emergency room that night.
But the results of the visit were, regrettably, the same: no real diagnosis and no real answers.
“They gave me an antibiotic shot because they thought it was just a sickness. But they never really diagnosed me with anything,” Lauren said. “The day that I went to the hospital, I almost passed out. My body was almost in a panic attack. I was shaky, I couldn’t control anything. Just awful pain. It’s hard to describe it. But they sent me home after they gave me the shot.”
Turns out, a shot isn’t what Lauren needed because less than a week later, she was rushed to the emergency room again.
And this time, she received more in a shot in the arm.
Doctors put Lauren through a CAT scan and an ultrasound. The CAT scan showed one of her kidneys to be two times the size of the other — which explained the source of Lauren’s constant pain and set off a chain reaction of forthcoming events.
“The head doctor on the floor I was on came in and told us that it looked pretty serious and that we needed to go to Children’s Hospital immediately,” Lauren said. “So they wrapped my arm with an IV in it, we jump in the car and go.”
Logan was handed the task of driving that night after she had made a makeshift bed for Lauren in the backseat.
Lauren says she was in too much pain to remember much of anything other than her thinking ‘I wonder what’s actually wrong with me? Like, how does this happen?’ Logan recalls every intricate detail like the back of her hand.
“It’s 2:30, 3 a.m., and she’s back [in the backseat] in so much pain,” Logan said. “I think the most shocking part of even having to go through this with someone like Lauren is that you’re talking about an extraordinarily healthy teenager who’s never had any medical conditions. For me, it was intense anxiety and fear. I was driving 80, I’m sure. It was a scary experience. We didn’t know what was happening and neither did the doctors. I was just trying to be hopeful.”
Finding A Diagnosis
Once Lauren arrived at Children’s, the news she received wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
“We didn’t get into a room until like 6 a.m. and they told me that I was going to have to undergo emergency surgery,” Lauren said. “I was pretty terrified and stressed out.”
Lauren’s kidney was close to rupturing and without surgery, she was in danger of losing it. Doctors inserted a nephrostomy tube into her back — a nephrostomy tube is a catheter that’s inserted through your skin into your kidney that drains urine into a collecting bag outside your body.
“That’s what they did to to get my kidney back closest to its original size. They wanted to shrink it before they did the major surgery,” Lauren said. “I was in the hospital for awhile after that, three or four days just because doctors wanted to monitor me. It wasn’t a fun pain but the relief for my back was amazing.”
Shortly after leaving the hospital, Lauren showed her toughness once again by returning to school … nephrostomy tube and all.
“I was pretty open about it but I hid it. I pinned [the collecting bag] to my sports bra with safety pins, just so I could cover it up with my shirt and not get a million questions,” she said. “That’s how I had to do it. I went to school like that everyday.”
That was Lauren’s normal routine for close to six weeks and, at the end of that process, she went under the knife once again to get what she hopes to be a final fix.
The surgery, in February of 2016, was a four-hour long ordeal and unblocked her ureter tube — a tube that connects your kidney to your bladder.
“My surgeon went in robotically, made four incisions, and unblocked it,” she said. “It’s like a hose kinking off and it wouldn’t allow anything to drain, which was why my kidney was huge. Doctors basically cut out the kinked part, stitched it back together and inserted a stint just to make sure it stayed open and that the scar tissue didn’t grow together.”
Lauren’s kidney was smaller and could now begin the process of healing. But her journey to return to full health was just beginning.
After surgery, and after receiving a new nephrostomy tube, Lauren was walking that night. Why? Doctors told her that the sooner she showed progress, the sooner she’d get to leave.
Two days later, she got her wish … but not before undergoing two serious surgeries and withstanding, at times, unbearable pain.
Her next step was to recover from the entire process. But that’s easier said than done.
“It really took a toll on my immune system and it affects you mentally. It was hard,” Lauren said. “The hospital visits and being sick was a norm at that point. School was hard to keep up with as well. I’d call my spanish teacher, Mrs. [Hettie] Pugh and ask her to get my homework from all my teachers. I wanted to do well in school; it was the start of my high school career. So I would do homework at the hospital and at my house. Mom wouldn’t let me go to school. But I tried.”
Lauren’s mother, Tammy, had worries about her daughter bumping into classmates in the hallways or other accidents taking place. Her kidney was still draining blood through the nephrostomy tube as it continued to heal.
And after all, the family had finally found out what was actually wrong with Lauren. Any step to deter progress was one they weren’t willing to take.
Eventually, Lauren’s kidney was as “normal” as it could be and she had the nephrostomy tube removed. But the lifelong effects will always linger.
“My surgeon told me that it could take five years, it could take 20 years for my kidney to get back to normal,” she said. “Or it could never happen. It will shrink and it will heal as best as it possibly can. But it may never go back to the same size.”
She’ll also have to attend regular check-ups with her doctor and could very possibly endure UTI’s for the rest of her adult life. She’s also been instructed to stay away from beverages such as coffee and soda because she’s in a state of constant dehydration.
“Nobody really knows how it happened. They just have said it’s a birth defect, which honestly makes sense,” Lauren said. “When I was little, I’d keep telling my mom that my pee burnt. She always thought it was just apple juice. We kind of left it at that and didn’t really think much more. So we’re pretty positive I kept a UTI when I was little as well.”
And the pain is still there and, probably, always will be.
“It’s definitely gotten better as the years have gone on because it is constantly healing,” Lauren said. “But I just kind of deal with it, even if it is hurting me. It’s hard for me to describe it now because I’m used to it. Sure, it hurts. But I’m immune.”
There’s No Stopping Lauren
Considering what Lauren went through and is still enduring everyday, in terms of student-athletes and people in general, she’s already as remarkable as they come.
But that’s not enough for Lauren Goebel.
No, she had to make sure she drove the point home.In February of 2016, Lauren had major surgery that would’ve sidelined most athletes for quite some time.
But not Lauren.
She had goals in mind, milestones to accomplish and teammates to help out.
Fast forward to Oct. 11, 2016 — just eight short months after surgery — and you know why Lauren’s 1,000th assist wasn’t a milestone but a victory.
“That was an incredible feeling. I remember thinking, ‘After everything I’ve went through, I’m still playing varsity volleyball. I’m out here.’ I gave that ball to Logan,” she said. “I had broken a big milestone and that was a big moment for me. It was a wave of relief and all the memories of what I had went through and how tough it really was.”
It was a big moment for Logan, too … whether Lauren realizes it or not.
“It was a huge moment for me. It was the revelation that all of this, you know, could end at any moment,” Logan said. “Since then and after that, just being there, I think our relationship has changed. I just try to talk to her and be there for her all the time. It opened my eyes to the fact that everything is expendable. We’re really close.”
But even 1,000 assists wasn’t enough for Lauren.
No, instead, her 2,000th career assist eventually came on Nov. 2, 2017 and her SVC record 2,571st assist popped up on Oct. 2, 2018.
Lauren ended her career with 2,976 career assists, a conference record that may never be broken, after passing out 933 during her senior season … a single-season SVC record.
During her four years with Southeastern’s volleyball program, the Panthers were 76-28 overall and have now won three consecutive district titles with back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight.
“Sitting back and being a bystander to all of this, Lauren is someone who wakes up everyday and it’s new. Once she got over the kidney thing, she’s not going to bring it up and harp on it,” Logan said. “She wants no sympathy. Because of that attitude, I think it allowed her to excel. People really don’t know what those numbers mean because they mean more than numbers. There’s hospitalizations and so many doctor visits in between those numbers and she still comes out on top. So reflecting on what it means, I’m still kind of speechless.”
Lauren said she’s never really sat down and thought about what Logan has realized, although her dad Jeff did mention it on the night of her 1,000th assist.
“My dad was like, ‘Do you realize how much you’ve actually been through?’ I just kind of sat there and said, ‘What do you mean?’ He was like, ‘You were in a hospital bed, pretty much lived at the hospital for two months and you accomplished what you did tonight.’ He just told me I needed to realize how strong I actually was,” Lauren said.
Lauren doesn’t know where she will attend college, although she does want to major in radiology. She’s also interested in playing volleyball but hasn’t come to a decision on that either.
As for her kidney, it’s currently dormant … which is good because it’s not growing. That, however, could change at anytime, and Lauren would be going down all too familiar road.
“I’m just glad that they got it fixed and that it showed itself when it did,” Lauren said. “I’ve thought about them not being able to fix it a couple of times. Like if that would’ve happened, volleyball wouldn’t have been a thing for me and more importantly, I may not even be here right now.”
But Lauren’s here: still tough, still enduring pain everyday and still beating it with a lead pipe.