Photos by Cory Erickson/NDSU Athletics
Katie Shoultz was at the top of her game for the 2016 NDSU softball team as a sophomore. She had a first-team All-Summit League season, but by the end of it, she realized something was wrong. After having difficulty catching her breath doing the most basic things on the field, she woke up one night during the conference tournament in excruciating pain. Shoultz went to the emergency room and tests found she had a pulmonary embolism, or blood clots in her lungs. Her career, they told her, was most likely over. But she never truly believed that. And after a year with no problems, doctors told Shoultz she could compete once again.
“Guys, I can’t catch my breath,” a confused Shoultz told her teammates after running out to her position in the outfield toward the end of the 2016 season. She’s anemic and has low iron, so she was already used to getting tired quickly. But this was different.
The reason, it turned out, could have resulted in a much worse scenario than the loss of her softball career. Doctors found several blood clots in both her lungs when she went to the emergency room on that Sunday night. Earlier in the season, Shoultz had to wear a boot because her leg was swollen. The reason for that was likely because of the blood clots.
HOMETOWN: Muscatine, Iowa
GAMES PLAYED: 113
BATTING AVERAGE: .297
“I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have a heart attack or a stroke or, it sounds weird to say, but die,” Shoultz said. “I could have died if I didn’t find it or go to the emergency room. It’s weird to say because I was only 20 at the time. I remember the reaction of the lady at the pharmacy to get a blood thinner, she was like, ‘How old are you?’ You expect older people to get it.”
When doctors explained to Shoultz what a pulmonary embolism was, her first reaction was tears and the realization her career was probably done. She sat out and watched her team compete in the NCAA Regionals in Seattle. But there was a glimmer of hope. While in Seattle, Shoultz found out that a player from Washington had the same thing she had a couple years earlier and ended up playing again.
“I never felt like I was actually done.” – Katie Shoultz
But for the second time in a few months, she was told her career was over when she went back to the doctor in September of 2016. More tears came when it finally sunk in during that moment for Shoultz. Head coach Darren Mueller was tasked with telling the team, something Shoultz couldn’t bear to do.
She stuck with the team in 2017 and practiced, helping shag balls in the outfield. Nothing appeared to be wrong, so Mueller asked Shoultz about the chances the doctors would let her play again.
“I said I would love to play again and it’s ultimately up to the doctors,” Shoultz said. “The entire time last year, I never felt like I was actually done. I don’t know if it was because I was around it the whole time and I was with the team. Once I went back and they told me that I could play again right before the regionals in Oklahoma, it was a relief. But I couldn’t announce I got cleared because I had to go through the school. The only people who knew were Darren and I during that time.”
With a pulmonary embolism, you’re most at risk to get another blood clot in the first three months. Shoultz didn’t have a clot in the entire year when she was on blood thinners. The doctors said they didn’t see any problems with her playing again. The only preventative measures she needs to take are staying on blood thinners and wearing compression socks that go up to her knees.
“I could have died if I didn’t find it or go to the emergency room.” – Katie Shoultz
Shoultz returned to game action during this past fall season. She’s back in the starting lineup as the spring season is underway. The reason for her blood clots is Factor V Leiden, a genetic condition that puts her more at risk for clots. It’s something she’ll always live with.
“When I’m playing, I don’t notice it because there’s so much adrenaline,” Shoultz said. “In the beginning, it was really hard. I got a lot of migraines. I’m anemic, so I have low iron and I already get tired pretty quickly. But that’s under control now. But there are times when I have chest pain and rib pain. At times, it gets scary because you have flashbacks of what I went through. But then I realize it’s OK.”
Shoultz has started a new tradition of writing the word “one” on her arm to remind her to take it one game at a time. Twice she’s been told her career was likely over. And she reminds herself of that often.
“I was very excited for the first game,” Shoultz said. “There was a moment when I was in the batter’s box and I stepped out for a moment and just took a deep breath and realized this could be your last game. There’s nothing to lose because I’ve lost it before. Knowing that it can be taken away again, I just want to go out and have fun.”