By Gary Sheftick, Army News ServiceMarch 18, 2019
BETHESDA, Md. -- After months of darkness, Josephine Pucci was finally beginning to recover from what she had thought would be a career-ending concussion.
An elbow to the head during a USA hockey game against Canada had put the Olympic hopeful in bed for weeks, lying in a dark room as she recovered. She tried to get up to go to class, but the sunglasses didn't stop the throbbing headaches or the dizziness. It was difficult to read or concentrate. She decided to withdraw from Harvard University for at least a semester.
Finally, a friend recommended a new type of treatment: chiropractic neurology. Instead of bedrest, it involved intense exercises for the eyes, head and musculoskeletal system to restore balance.
At a clinic in Atlanta, Pucci delved into the exercises with a passion. That's where she saw the light.
The epiphany came when she met a woman who hadn't walked in years. During therapy, with others cheering her on, the woman stood up and took her first steps in a decade.
"That was really powerful," Pucci said. "Everyone in the room came to tears."
At that moment, Pucci was inspired with a new goal in life: to help others as she was being helped.
It motivated her to take pre-med classes and eventually join the Army, where now as a second lieutenant she attends the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
"I just want to be the best doctor I can be," she said, "so that I can one day have that positive impact that my doctor had on me and I saw him have on others."
LONG ROAD BACK
The injury Pucci suffered in Calgary, Canada, in 2012 wasn't like any other she had experienced playing hockey. This time, the problems persisted for months.
"I felt like I was losing hope that I was going to be able to fully recover," Pucci said.
When a fellow hockey player told her about the neurology institute in Atlanta run by Dr. Frederick "Ted" Carrick, she was at first a bit skeptical, but decided to give it a try. After all, it was the same clinic that Pittsburgh Penguin hockey star Sidney Crosby had recently used for his recovery after a concussion.
"He was able to give me that hope back," she said about Carrick as he helped her make progress with his diagnosis and treatment plan.
He prescribed a series of saccades exercises for eye tracking, along with routines for gait and stability. He also put her on a gyrostim, a two-axis rotational chair that flips around to help restore balance.
"She followed my direction for her treatment with a passion," Carrick said, adding at the same time, she encouraged other patients not to give up.
After just two days, Pucci was able to take off her dark sunglasses and even get out on the ice to slowly skate in a circle.
"As soon as she started to improve her function," Carrick said, "she was a natural support system for other patients. She counseled them, worked with them, and served as a role model."
ROAD TO SOCHI
Over the next few months, Pucci went back and forth from Boston to the clinic in Atlanta.
"I was so invested in my recovery," she said, explaining she was determined to try out for the 2014 Olympics.
She began training again for hockey at a sports center in Bedford, Massachusetts. After months of practice, she went back to Lake Placid, New York, and impressed the national team coaches. She made the cut for the Olympic team headed to Sochi, Russia.
In Team USA's first game against Finland, Pucci played defense like she did at Harvard, and USA won 3-1. In the second game against Switzerland, she was credited with an assist -- a goal that helped USA beat the Swiss, 9-0.
The USA women lost to Canada, 2-3, but went on to beat Sweden 6-1 in the semifinals. That set up a gold-medal match between USA and Canada again and in overtime, Canada ended up prevailing 3-2.
After coming home from Sochi with silver, Pucci had been all fired up to go back and avenge the loss.
"The competitor in me wanted to get back to training and redeem how things ended up," she said. But other goals interceded. A month later, she called the USA Hockey coach.
It was one of the most difficult phone calls she ever made, Pucci said.
"I wanted to pursue a career in medicine and didn't want hockey or anything else to get in the way," she said. "I didn't want to have another brain injury that might affect me worse than that one."
She went back to Harvard full-time to finish her undergraduate degree, taking as many pre-med courses as she could. She even told Coach Katey Stone that she wouldn't play hockey her final year at Harvard.
It was a "tough transition" to move on from hockey, Pucci said. She finally relented and agreed to play hockey her senior year at Harvard. Her focus, however, was on pre-med studies as she finished courses for her major in social and cognitive neuroscience.
Between classes, she worked part-time in a traumatic brain injury research laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. Dr. Michael Whalen was her supervisor there when not teaching as an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
Pucci said she learned a lot working in the lab and Whalen motivated her. "I felt like he had confidence in me before I had confidence in myself," she said.
She was introduced to western blotting, counting cells and behavioral studies with mice. She worked full-time at the lab during semester breaks and the summer.
"You have to be fully dedicated," she said, in order to pursue a career in medicine, and Whalen convinced her she could do it.
After she graduated Harvard, Pucci began working in a neurology lab at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City while taking more pre-med classes in the evenings.
During this time, she also worked to expand a nonprofit organization she had established to help those suffering from concussions. She wanted to spread the word about alternatives for recovery.
Pucci first had the idea for a nonprofit shortly after she recovered from her concussion. She connected with a couple of hockey players at Yale University who had experienced concussions. They began researching how to establish a nonprofit.
"Our mission is really to promote a safer sports culture," she said. "That means encouraging athletes to not just fight through a concussion and play through it, but handle the concussion properly."
Another goal of the organization is to "provide a community" for those who suffer from concussions so that they can network and share resources.
"We call it a concussion circle," she said. "A lot of the work I was doing with the nonprofit, or just projects to volunteer and give back, it is fulfilling and it's exciting."
When she was looking into medical schools, she came across the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. "I had never heard of it before," she said. "It caught my eye right away."
She was encouraged, however, to apply to multiple schools; so she did. She was on a waitlist for Stanford School of Medicine when she heard from USU.
The idea of pursuing a medical degree while serving her country was appealing, she said, adding it was exciting to think about "serving those who serve." So the decision was an easy one.
HITTING THE ICE AGAIN
During her second semester at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, she was contacted about playing a pick-up hockey game for the Army against Navy. The game was scheduled for Feb. 7, immediately following a Washington Capitals game.
It was just her fourth time wearing hockey equipment since college, Pucci said, "but it was fun to get out there; it was fun to meet some people on the team."
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley coached the team, while Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville played defense alongside Pucci.
"She took great care of me playing left defense," McConville said about his young teammate.
The two of them had an opportunity to talk during practice sessions prior to the game with Navy.
"What impressed me the most is really the way she faced adversity and overcame it," the general said. "We're looking for resilience in men and women of character and she fits the mold perfectly."
Hockey and the Army share a lot of similarities, he noted.
"They're both contact sports," he said. "You get knocked down and sometimes you need to get [back] up."
He also met Pucci's father at the hockey game. "You could see where she got her character," McConville said, explaining her dad spent over 25 years as a police officer in New York City.
Passion will make 2nd Lt. Pucci a great doctor, McConville said, adding "she's going to help a lot of people in the future."
Now in the Army, she said she's on the "best team in the world" and feels that her experience recovering from a traumatic brain injury gives her "perspective" that may help her as a doctor.
"I feel like, unfortunately, a lot of service members suffer with that injury," she said.
TBI treatment is changing in the military, she said. Soldiers no longer are told to just stay in a dark room and rest, but she added there's still a ways to go to advance treatment.
"Hopefully I'll be able to take what I've learned … and give them a little more answers," she said.