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Harms plans her return to coaching

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John McPoland
February 19, 2009
— “I’m lucky. I’m really lucky.”

It’s a phrase Whitewater High girls basketball coach Judy Harms repeats several times as she talks about her recovery from a near-fatal brain aneurysm.


“Before they loaded me onto the (Med Flight helicopter), I really thought I was going to die. My life flashed before my eyes,” Harms said of the harrowing Dec. 22 night in which she collapsed before the Whippets’ game at Cambridge.


The 46-year-old coach then suffered a seizure in the locker room before being rushed to Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital and eventually the University Hospital in Madison.


“Time is a huge factor,” Harms said of the emergency response to her initial symptoms. “I was really lucky.”


Even in her rapidly deteriorating condition, Harms had a hunch she had suffered a brain aneurysm.


An aneurysm is a localized, blood-filled dilation (balloon-like bulge) of a blood vessel caused by disease or weakening of the vessel wall. Aneurysms most commonly occur in arteries at the base of the brain (the circle of Willis) and in the aorta (the main artery coming out of the heart, a so-called aortic aneurysm).


As the size of an aneurysm increases, there is an increased risk of rupture, which can result in severe hemorrhage or other complications including sudden death.


“It was a very different Christmas for our family,” Harms said. “But I know that I’ll have many more to follow.”


Now, almost two months after the incident, Harms is slowly recovering from the brain surgery performed by Dr. David Niemann.


“I get headaches almost every day,” Harms said of the rehab process. “I get dizzy. I’m very fatigued a lot of days. I’m really weak. I’ve been told that all of the headaches could disappear overnight.


“I hope I wake up someday and everything’s gone and it’s me again.”


Among the issues Harms has battled during her recovery is sensitivity to light and noise. She’s also learning the limits to which she can push herself.


“I recently went to too many basketball games,” she said. “I had to pull back. But I was sick of missing my life.”


Harms spent two weeks in the ICU at University Hospital and was discharged Jan. 6. She attended her first Whippets game on Jan. 22 when Whitewater hosted Beloit Turner in a Parents’ Night game.


“It was really hard to walk into the gym that night,” Harms said. “I could hardly be there without crying. It was very emotional.”


But it proved to be a night that opened her eyes to what the coaching profession is all about.


“It was touching to see so many former players come back to support me that night,” Harms said. “That’s the reward of coaching. You realize that you do make a difference in peoples’ lives. You get to see where these people go in life and how they grow up.”


She also learned just how quickly and generously people reach out to those in need.


“The Whitewater community has been unbelievable,” Harms said. “People bring us beautiful meals on Mondays and Wednesdays. The Harms family doesn’t eat as many frozen pizzas as we used to. We have so many friends who have been so good to us.”


For now, most of Harms’ days are spent with the lights low and the house quiet. She takes an afternoon nap, but makes sure she’s awake to watch “Ellen.”


“She makes me laugh,” Harms said of the popular daytime talk show host.


For a long time, Harms could only watch TV. Now she’s able to read for short periods without getting a headache. She also sifts through her e-mail and sends out a few replies each day.


Harms said the outpouring of cards, flowers, phone calls and visitors overwhelmed her and her family.


It all helped her survive mentally.


“I wanted to cry a lot of times,” Harms said. “Your outlook on life is so different after you go through something like this. I’m a phy-ed teacher. I know how important your health is.”


Because she’s still battling to regain her strength, Harms hasn’t set a target date for her return to teaching.


“I might go back in April. I might go back in August,” Harms said. “I really want to get back to teaching. I’ll go back when I’m ready. I want to be 100 percent.”


She has a more specific date for her return to coaching. If healthy enough, Harms has been tabbed to coach in the WBCA Division 2 all-star game set for June in Madison.


Tonight figures to be another emotional one for Harms.


The Whippets, 6-13 overall and 6-9 in the Rock Valley Conference, will host East Troy in a game designated as a fundraiser for the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. It’s also Senior Night for Courtney Trewyn and Natalie Babcock, the only 12th-graders on a youthful Whippet roster.


“I feel sad that I couldn’t finish the season with my two seniors,” Harms said. “The saddest thing is that I’m missing out coaching my daughter (Kelsey) during her junior year.”


By the same token, Harms has been impressed by the work being done by Matt Amundson, the team’s interim head coach.


“He really stepped up,” Harms said. “It was his first year in our program. He goes about the job quietly. They haven’t missed a beat.”


Harms knows her brush with death has changed her outlook on life and coaching.


“I used to be very intense. I didn’t sit down during games,” Harms said. “I’ll probably be a lot more mellow.


“This whole thing has made me stronger in everything: faith, family, life.”


And, yes, she says she’s lucky.



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