The Shippensburg University field hockey team has had its fair share of formidable opponents in the last three years in its run to three-consecutive NCAA Division II Championships.
When SU’s redshirt-junior Megan Hart was diagnosed with cancer, however, an even bigger battle began.
Hart dealt with blood clots and illnesses that eventually led to a discovery of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She fought off a blood infection, a fungal infection, chemotherapy, allergic reactions and a painful skin disease.
Like her teammates on the field, Hart persevered for an even greater result.
“Shortly after all of that, I got into rehab to basically learn how to walk again,” Hart said. “It’s been a long journey, but every step of the way I have been thinking about how I could get another stick in my hand and get back on the field.”
Hart’s journey included a prolonged hospital stay over the course of her recovery. A long one: from Sep. 16, 2017, until Feb. 20, 2018. One hundred fifty seven days — she remembers every one of them — but one day in particular sticks in her mind.
The Hershey Bears hockey team made a visit and instantly helped lift Megan’s spirits.
“The one thing that helped me the most was when the Hershey Bears came in and brought some hockey sticks in,” Hart said.
“I showed them some videos of hockey players and they were just amazed. It was really nice to relate to them on that level, where they are high-level athletes and I’m a collegiate athlete. That relationship, to be able to talk about that instead of your illness, definitely took away the mindset of being sick.”
Hart is now back in Shippensburg playing the sport she loves from the sidelines, in hopes of returning to game action next year. Ultimately, Hart’s freedom is her favorite part.
“It’s so nice. For a while I couldn’t really go outside, and I had to stay away from people because my counts were so low,” Hart said. “You’re going stir crazy just being inside all the time. Now I’m in school, I’m in my own apartment and I can do my own thing. It’s definitely a breath of fresh air. I was in the hospital for five months, from Sep. 16 to Feb. 20.”
Hart’s workout regimen consists of running and conditioning to build up endurance, lifting weights to get her strength back and doing stick work at practice to make sure she does not lose hand-eye coordination — all with the support of her coach, Tara Zollinger.
When Zollinger met Hart, she was just being diagnosed with leukemia. But the special bond between the two has grown as Zollinger, who took over as SU’s head coach following the 2016 season, has always made sure Hart was a big part of the team and what SU is trying to accomplish.
“When I first met Meg, she was very quiet and she was going through her own thing and I didn’t get to know her that well,” Zollinger said. “All of this happened and after communicating with her, going to visit and talking to her, she really opened up. She taught me more about who she was and what she believed in and I thought, wow, cancer doesn’t have a shot against this one. She’s a fighter, she’s so strong and she cares so much about the people in her life — that’s what makes her so special.”
After SU field hockey’s magical 2017 season, Hart got to witness the magic once again in 2018 — this time on the sidelines, and not in a hospital bed.
Zollinger recalled what Megan’s return meant to her and the team.
“The first day having her back was just incredible,” Zollinger said. “Just seeing her step on the field for the first time in her practice gear just doing what she loves after fighting for so long was awesome. Every day she is out here, the team’s energy just lifts. She is motivating us even more now that she’s back. It’s been an incredible journey for all of us, being there for her and having her back where she belongs.”
Hart received her individual national championship trophy with the rest of her teammates and celebrated post game with her family. She now looks to achieve her own goals.
Among them are finishing college, planning her wedding, and of course, playing in a national championship game.
Hart now looks to establish her new “normal.”
“I don’t think it will ever go back to normal or be the way it was before, so I need to create a new normal for myself,” Hart said. “Whether that is creating a healthier lifestyle and slowing down and not letting things pass me by, I think that is definitely my new normal. I don’t plan anything out and let things play out how they will.”
Hart is in remission and will continue to get chemotherapy treatments over the next two years. With her new mindset of enjoying every day and stopping to enjoy everything — Hart has done more than beat cancer.
She crushed it.