'I don't give up'
Varsity coaches tend to learn a lot about their players, so it’s not surprising that Bates field hockey coach Wynn Hohlt knew that Sarah Blomstedt ’09 had been born prematurely. But to Hohlt, it was just another detail about Blomstedt, like the fact that she grew up in Gill, Mass., and went to Loomis-Chaffee.
Then, last winter, Hohlt read Small Wonder: The Story of a Child Born Too Soon (2008, Haley’s), written by Blomstedt’s mother, Susan LaScala. In harrowing and frank detail, the book tells of Blomstedt’s fight for life during her first year. For Hohlt, learning about her player’s excruciatingly fragile beginnings 22 years ago explains the life fire that burns inside Blomstedt today.
“The book absolutely reinforced all that I know about Blommie — that being a preemie made her this tough little athlete and an achiever in whatever she’s doing,” says Hohlt.
In 1986, Susan LaScala was five months pregnant with her second child when, on Jan. 12, an infection of the membranes lining her uterine wall caused LaScala to go into premature labor. Stopping the labor would put her in danger and be fatal to the infant, so doctors performed a caesarean section. But the 25-ounce baby that emerged, LaScala writes, “did not look like a baby”:
A tiny creature lay on the open warmer….She was splayed on her back in a position that was totally unnatural for an infant. Newborns usually lie curled up in their cribs, their arms and legs remembering the way they fit in the womb. But this baby’s arms stretched flat and straight, and her legs extended and flopped to each side. She lay completely still.
It would be another month before LaScala, a nurse practitioner who is now director of clinical services at the Deerfield Academy health center, and her husband, Dr. Jeff Blomstedt, could even hold their baby. They named her Sarah Katherine Blomstedt, even though a chilling question scuttled through LaScala’s mind: Whether they should name a baby who might never know that she has a name.
Setback after obstacle followed throughout the summer: seizures, sepsis, and infections. In August, a rare yeast infection clogged both of Sarah’s kidneys, preventing her body from ridding itself of waste and putting her into pediatric intensive care for 29 desperate days. That she not only survived her first year but was left unscathed by any long-term problems, such as deafness, blindness, or cerebral palsy, is difficult even for her physician father to explain. “It’s like she’s been hardwired with true grit,” says Jeff Blomstedt.
LaScala’s first-person tale is distinguished not only by its medical detail but also by its focus on what happens when incredible emotional pressure is brought to bear on a family (the couple also has a son, Willie, who was then a toddler). LaScala chronicles her and her husband’s different but ultimately compatible ways of negotiating their differences as spouses, beleaguered parents, and insiders to their daughter’s medical care. Even today, in terms of LaScala’s book, they differ. She wrote it; he admits that he can’t bring himself to read beyond a paragraph or two.
Of course, Sarah herself has no memory of any of this. Her familiarity with her own remarkable story is a product of the narrative of those who know her, and it’s almost as if the baby in the book was someone else. “I’ve been totally healthy since then,” she says. “I get a cold probably once a year, but that’s it. I feel like I got all of my sicknesses out of me that first year.”
A fierce competitor in her two Bates sports, field hockey and squash, Sarah also stays in tune with coaches and teammates. “She’s never going to screw around when I’m explaining a drill,” says Hohlt, who is an assistant coach of women’s squash in addition to her field hockey duties. “Then she helps the kids who weren’t paying attention. She’s the one who organizes people to go to the weight room, especially someone not as motivated or comfortable going there.” This past winter, Sarah was named to the women’s squash NESCAC All-Sportsmanship team.
Studying abroad, she missed the 2007 field hockey season. But her starting position in the backfield is secure thanks to her performance in the last game o f her sophomore season. After a Colby standout had a hand in back-to-back goals, the Mules were ahead 2-1 in the second half. Tapped by Hohlt to harness the offending Mule, the 5-foot-3 Blomstedt shut down her opponent the rest of the game, which Bates won in overtime.
At the time, Sarah had only played about a dozen minutes all year. “In the most important game of the season, I asked her to do something that people who were supposedly better than her couldn’t do,” says Hohlt. “And she did it.”
When home, Sarah trains and plays squash with her father. “She hasn’t beaten me in a full match yet, but she’s getting doggone close,” says Blomstedt, an accomplished player. “She tries to make me run all over the court and get me out of position. I can hear her giggle when she does that.”
Sarah employs much the same strategy at Bates (without the giggles). She’s missed only one squash match in her three years, earning a career record of 44-26 for a team that’s been in the top 15 nationally the last three years.
“I work really hard in sports and don’t give up, ever. In school I’m the same way,” says Sarah, a psychology major. “I’ve always been persistent.”
In a sense, Sarah Blomstedt has been her mother’s supportive teammate, too, as LaScala worked on her book for a decade. “I’m just thrilled for my mom that she’s finally done with the book,” says Sarah. “She made it happen.”