Lexi Roth, a Centereach High School track and field athlete who has undergone six brain surgeries, believes her athletic prowess will save her life from an incurable disease.
The 18-year-old was diagnosed years ago with hydrocephalus, an abnormal buildup of fluid in the brain cavity. Roth, who has a shunt in her skull to control the levels of cerebral spiral fluid in her brain, has learned to live with the possibility that at any moment, the device could malfunction, forcing her to have emergency surgery.
“I just have to think positive because every day is a gift,” said Roth, who this past weekend won the 55-meter hurdles at the New York Armory’s Molloy Stanner Games in Manhattan, where 4,000 high school athletes from Long Island and the tristate area competed.
Roth, who dreams of running one day in the Summer Olympics, said the world stops when she competes.
“I look out past the hurdle and sprint as fast as I can, thinking, ‘1, 2, 3,’ ” Roth said, adding she was on the verge of tears after winning a hurdling heat at the games on Saturday. “I was on top of the world.”
Roth was diagnosed with the disease when she was in the seventh grade. For six months, doctors had been baffled at the fatigue, sleepiness and dizziness that kept her in bed for hours and sometimes days. She couldn’t hold down food.
“The doctors thought it was viral,” said her mother, Karen Roth.
One day in class, Lexi Roth fell asleep. She went to the nurse’s office, but on the way there, her mother said, she fell to the ground and blacked out.
“It’s amazing that she did not have a stroke or slip into a coma,” Karen Roth said. “Being an athlete saved her life.”
After six hours in the emergency room at St. Charles Hospital, Roth’s tears and pleas to go home caught the attention of a nurse practitioner who recognized her symptoms. She immediately had a CT scan that revealed a mass. She then had emergency surgery at Stony Brook University Hospital.
Doctors removed a tumor and implanted a shunt, but nearly a year later, it malfunctioned. More surgeries followed.
In August, the shunt failed again, disrupting Roth’s training and meets.
Roth’s personal coach, Mike Strockbine, said because hurdlers sometimes fall, he was concerned.
“If she fell, would it affect the shunt?” Strockbine asked. “But Lexi’s parents insisted she compete. She has passion and love, and it’s hard to say no to a hardworking kid.”
Roth’s passion for track and field served as a remedy in middle school when some students would hurl insults at her and shove her in campus hallways, she said.
She would run through the schoolyard without stopping during recess, Roth said.
“I would go out and keep running,” she said.
Roth is set to graduate in the spring and plans to keep training for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics — a dream that moved closer to reality after she worked out with Olympic gold medal hurdler Dalilah Muhammad at the Armory’s summer camp.
“Our gold medalists are eager to train and inspire. It’s an opportunity to help kids improve,” said Jonathan Schindel, co-president of the Armory.
Passion is what keeps her alive, Roth said.
“I do it for my health,” she said of competing. “I do it for my dream and my family, who has given me everything I need to set my goal.”