Ramsey runner McNeill ahead on recovery road by Darren Cooper of The Record
RAMSEY — Lindsey McNeill checked her watch as she approached the front door of her Ramsey home. It had officially been a month.
She couldn’t wait another minute.
She couldn’t wait to lace up her size 7 Nike running shoes.
She couldn’t wait to find out what it was to run without constant pain pressing inside her head.
It has now been five months since the Ramsey High School junior runner had surgery to remove a benign golf-ball-size tumor growing at the base of her skull.
Doctors aren’t sure whether the tumor was there for years, or for months, and they’ll probably never know. The good news was that it was slow-growing and hadn’t manifested itself in any neurological problems. The surgery on Dec. 23 was a success.
And one month later, McNeill opened the door to the frigid air and went for a run.
“I remember I was scared that I was going to still have pain,” said McNeill. “I hadn’t been allowed to jump or lift anything for a whole month. I almost could imagine the pain, even though it wasn’t there.”
After a pause, she continued with a smile: “I ran and I pushed myself so hard the first day that I almost threw up.”
Who is to say what it is about running that can stir such passion in people? Growing up, McNeill was a bookish type, more prone to playing with dolls than outside running around, according to her mother, Aurora Kramer.
McNeill did say in third grade that one day she would be an Olympic track star, but early on she played soccer and a little field hockey.
Then, in eighth grade, McNeill started running, mostly on her own. She showed up at Ramsey High School and joined the cross-country team. The Rams were good. McNeill was, too, but she was still learning.
“She looked like her feet never left the ground,” said Kramer, an accomplished runner in her youth. “It was frustrating to watch. She was still getting decent times, but her form has totally changed, that’s for sure.”
“They used to tell me I should try race walking,” laughed McNeill.
Although she prefers longer distances, McNeill went along with the crowd and joined the Rams’ winter and spring track teams, running the mile and 2-mile.
As a sophomore, her times dropped and she discovered she loved hard workouts. There are high school runners who cringe at the words “mile repeats,” but to McNeill they are fun.
Entering her junior season, McNeill was one to watch. She was determined to break 20 minutes in cross country and did so. Then she won the C Division at the Bergen County group championships. Everyone was starting to think North Jersey’s next female running star was here.
By then the headaches had started.
McNeill, 16, a slender 5-foot-6, doesn’t remember when she first noticed them. Maybe last summer, maybe just as school was starting.
“It hurt so bad to turn my head. In the back of my head it felt like a pulling [sensation],” she said. “I started to get bad headaches and this feeling of like a rock slamming against my head, and the pain would go down my back.”
The first theory was dehydration; McNeill was still training a lot. Her parents also chalked it up to teenage girl melodrama.
But the pain kept getting worse. A constant ache. Even while running.
Concerned, Kramer made an appointment with a pediatric neurologist. It took a while for her to be seen, but the MRI scan was clear as the summer sky. There was a tumor. It was right where McNeill felt it, and had moved her spinal column slightly.
“The doctor called and said: I have some not-so-good news, but in a messy situation, it’s the best news I could give you,” said Kramer.
McNeill’s parents told her the following morning. It was Dec. 3. Surgery would be soon.
“I remember … it didn’t really fully hit me at first,” said McNeill. “I remember feeling relieved to know that I wasn’t going crazy, that there was a big weight, literally, bouncing on my head.”
The family was lucky to get Dr. Richard Anderson of Columbia Presbyterian to do the surgery. Not only that, but he would come to The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood and bring his staff.
The day before surgery, McNeill went out for one more run with her mom. It was unspoken, but they both realized it might be their last one together.
Surgery was a full success. McNeill has a thin scar on the back of her neck. Her long hair hides it well. She was home in three days. She was already thinking about running.
McNeill didn’t run for the Rams’ winter track team, but she has been running this spring. However, there are some physical and mental side effects. McNeill’s shoulder muscles are out of whack from the surgery, and she’s undergoing physical therapy for that.
She also just hasn’t found her race gear yet. McNeill stepped off the track at the county championships and said she isn’t sure she will run at sectionals.
“I was expecting this great comeback, but it just hasn’t happened yet,” said McNeill. “Mentally and physically, I just need time.”
“I think the shock of it just hit her,” said Kramer.
McNeill’s father, Duncan, believes the same thing and that it’s only a matter of time before Lindsay is running free and easy and winning races.
Lindsay McNeill also realizes that her expectations for herself have been too high. Who has brain surgery in December and wins county championships in May?
McNeill knows she’s fortunate. She has to have MRI scans every three months now, and the first one was clear. She’s thankful to her family and teammates for being there for her.
She knows faster times, greater accomplishments are ahead. She just can’t wait.