BURRILLVILLE — As the scoreboard clock ticked down to “0:00” on Monday night, Nov. 5, Jaime LeClair-Roy sat in the front row of the Roger Williams University Stadium's stands with her family, numb not from the bitter cold but at what she was witnessing.
Her daughter, senior goalkeeper Alex LeClair, had just led her Burrillville High girls' field hockey team to a 1-0 victory over Smithfield, and in the process sealed for the Broncos their first Division II state championship in 28 years.
The most astonishing part: LeClair had done so despite being blind in her right eye, as she had been diagnosed with Juvenile Open-Angled Glaucoma the night after Easter, 2010.
“On so many levels, that scene was amazing,” her mom stated. “I was proud of the team, and so proud of her. It raced through my mind all the things she's been through. I mean, it was beyond a tough year, but I could see all that she had overcome, and how she had moved on with that tremendous challenge.”
When asked if she cried, she giggled, “Oh, goodness, yes! They were tears of joy. I felt an abundance of emotion. How'd she do it? She's just really tough mentally. If you ask me, she's my hero. You take a girl at 16 years old and tell her she's blind in one eye, and a lot of them would probably have problems pushing through it.
“It posed for a very challenging school year,” she added. “She was already a very hard worker, but she had to work that much harder, not only in the classroom but on the field, too. I think it's just her personality. She knew her family was behind her; we're very supportive of Alex in everything she does, but it was also the school – the teachers, administrators, the coaches, her fellow students – they were supportive, too.
“She just wasn't going to let it get her down. She did what she needed to do. She's amazing.”
Weeks later, head coach Susan Burgess rattled off her goalie's stupendous statistics for the season – 74 saves and just five goals allowed in 16 regular-season tilts, good for a save percentage of .937; 12 shutouts (including the final); a paltry goals-against average of 0.33; 89 saves in 18 games, helping her squad to a history-making 17-0-1 campaign.
Some say it was a miracle LeClair, who turned 17 just 10 days after becoming a first-ever state champion, could even take the field, given the angles, length and speed of shots.
“I remember talking to one of the specialists; I called her because I wanted to comprehend her ability to play, how she could without seeing out of one eye,” Burgess recalled. “Doctors had already told Alex she had lost her sight in her right eye, and I was worried about keeping her safe. You know some of those shots can come in hard.
“The specialist told me the eye is an amazing organ, and that one eye can actually overcompensate for the loss of sight in another. The good eye actually can pick up more peripherally. When I heard that, it blew me away.”
Offered LeClair: “With glaucoma, it first affects your peripheral vision, then your straight-ahead sight. In my case, the disease took out my entire right eye, but it never touched my left, which I was told is extremely rare.
“Normally, people with Juvenile Open-Angled Glaucoma have very high eye pressure numbers; that's what causes it. Those people with it usually must have eye pressure numbers in the teens to low 20s, but my comfort zone is five-13, no higher.
“I don't know how I did it, but I'm so happy I did. As a senior, I wanted to play so badly … I may be blind in that eye right now, but I always have hope they'll find a miracle cure. The other thing, I want people to be more aware of glaucoma, and what it does.”
Truth be told, her emotional, frightening trek through battling the disease started so innocently.
While finishing up Easter dinner at her grandparents' Blackstone home that night in 2010, she noticed her mom, Jaime Roy, staring at her. LeClair asked why, and Jaime told her her right eye seemed a bit lazy.
“I just said, 'Mom, I feel fine. I'm really tired because it's been a long day,'” she said. “She just let it go. I'm a really paranoid person, and she didn't want to worry me. The next morning, I was laying in bed, and she came in. She asked me to cover each eye with my hand, and – when I covered my right – I could see fine. When I covered my left, I couldn't see anything.
“I still thought everything was fine.”
Hours later, Jaime drove LeClair to Lenscrafters in North Attleboro, and specialists there put her through some tests, which her right eye failed.
“I kept saying, 'I can't see. I can't see,' but I was still remarkably calm; I don't know why,” she noted. “Like I said, I can be paranoid sometimes. A technician took me into a back room for more tests, then asked me to call in my mom and my brother Nick (then eight). She explained my diagnosis, and she was very shaky, panicky-like.
“She said, 'You have glaucoma,'” she continued. “I was, like, 'What?' I think she brought up sports, and maybe I wouldn't be able to play. That made me really upset. She explained how eye pressure can fluctuate, and that because my pressure was so high maybe it affected my vision.
“She told me that someone my age should have eye pressure from 10 to the low or mid 20s, but – when I was diagnosed – it was in the 50s. She handed my mom a card and asked her to call the number on it in the morning to make an appointment.
“My mom and I had just heard the news, that I had glaucoma and I was blind in my right eye. She said the eye pressure was through the roof, but told us to go home. I just sat in the chair bawling my eyes out, but my mom is very strong. She held it together and asked all the questions, but once we left the room, she teared up.
See LECLAIR, page C3
“I was crying, she was crying and my brother was very upset. Because he's a sibling, and the technician said it could be hereditary, he was scared for me and scared for himself.
“All I remember on the ride home was thinking, 'If I fall asleep, will I be able to see again?”
Jaime called her mother, Veronica Shumaker, who works in respiratory at Milford Regional Hospital, to deliver the news. She immediately told her to bring LeClair to the Boston Eye & Ear Infirmary, so several family members hopped into the car and did.
The same night, a physician issued the same diagnosis, and put some eye drops into both to relieve the pressure.
“She told me my optic nerve was destroyed; that's why I had no vision,” LeClair said, wiping away a tear. “Usually, an optic nerve is pinkish/orangish and all the hundreds of receptors look healthy, but mine was green. She said I had three, and it was dead.
“The next 36-48 hours were a living hell. I just wanted to go home and sleep; it was early in the morning.”
The doctor told her she couldn't; she had to see a specialist right away. That turned out to be Dr. Teresa Chen, who gave her more eye drops, but they did nothing to reduce the pressure, so she turned to a medication called Diamox.
Minutes later, Chen sent LeClair to another floor for detailed photos of her eyes, then met with her to give her more information.
“My biggest fear was that, if I blinked, I wouldn't be able to see again,” she said. “Once I heard for sure I was, in fact, blind, I flipped, but I'm not really sure what I did. All I know is I passed my eye tests at school less than a year before, with flying colors.”
Once home, she retreated to her bedroom and fell asleep. Hours later, she phoned Burgess.
“Alex was trying to tell me something, but she was too broken up,” the coach stated. “I thought someone had died. Finally, she blurted it out, 'I've been in Boston for the past 24 hours, and I've been diagnosed with glaucoma.' I'm a nurse, so I just asked her some questions because she was having trouble telling me the story.
“'Are you going back?' I asked, then I said, 'Let's try to stay positive, stay optimistic,'” she added. “I knew how talented she was in field hockey, and how involved she was in school. She loves school. She's a great kid, and I know she had aspired to play in college.
“I told her, 'I'm in medicine, and I see amazing things every day. Everyone loves you, and everyone's here to support you. We're going to get through this thing.'”
Glenn Siner, LeClair's history teacher, walked into the office this day and hugged his favorite student-athlete.
“I remember her coming in the next day, and I could see she was upset,” he remembered. “Alex does not have a poker face, wears her heart on her sleeve. I've had Alex in class since her sophomore year, and we've always had a good teacher-student rapport. Burrillville High School loves Alex, and Alex loves Burrillville High School.
“She's literally one in a million, a well-rounded kid and mature beyond her years,” he continued. “We all took it personally. She's always confided in me, and she finally said, 'I have glaucoma. I'm losing my eyesight.' I know adults who couldn't handle it well, and she was having a tough time.
“Years ago, I had a young lady who had a similar situation to overcome, a challenging situation for any kid to go through, so I gave her a poem (entitled) 'Invictus,' written by William Ernest Henley. I thought it was particularly appropriate because it's about not giving up, staying strong, being the master of your fate and captain of your soul.
“I gave it to her a couple of days later. The thing about Alex, the superintendent knows her, the principal, the school committee, the faculty, even the janitors know her and love her. She's partially to blame for that because she's so darn friendly. She's always saying 'Hi!' to someone.”
“On this team, we have freshmen who will talk non-stop, and they're always asking silly questions because they're not listening,” she said. “Alex will see that I'm getting upset, looking for assistance, but she'll say, 'Coach, I got this!' She saves me some time. The freshman consider her the mom of the team.”
The following day, LeClair awoke to several text messages, including one from a former captain, Amanda Spink. She wrote, “Hey, Alex! You're in my prayers. I honestly love you so much. They're going to fix this, and you'll be blocking shots all day long. Good night, love!”
Burgess claimed it wasn't hard to tell LeClair's fellow tri-captains, Laura Hauser and Brittany Bebeau, but it was difficult for them to hear.
“They were, like, 'Alex? No!' It can't be!'” she mentioned. “She was coming off a great season in her varsity debut as a sophomore. We thought we were getting back a scrappy, aggressive, coachable underclassman who would do anything to succeed.
“The more I thought about it, I had to sit down; it knocked the wind out of me,” she added. “As a nurse, I see a lot of terrible things, and I deal with dying every day. We didn't know what was going to happen, so we had to stay focused, be there for whatever she needed.”
On Sept. 15, 2010, she had surgery on her right eye because the medications weren't working, and doctors thought it could hemorrhage. Because the eye pressure had dropped, they sent her home, stating all was fine, though she had to keep it covered for 24 hours.
“When I walked through the side door (at school) at 7:30 (a.m.), any worries about my eyes disappeared,” LeClair grinned. “As bad as kids can be sometimes, and as hard as school can be, BHS is my safe zone.”
She actually had started the Broncos' first game as a junior prior to that initial surgery, but didn't return until the finale against Warwick Vets. The reason: Doctors ordered her not to play for three months after each operation.
“When she came back, I was worried about how she'd be; she hadn't practiced with us much,” Burgess said. “I had Brittany (Bebeau) start the first half and Alex the second. We were all pumped up because she was out there, but I could see from the sideline she was so nervous, she was frozen. She gave up a goal that tied it up.
“I called a timeout, and I think I raised my voice,” she chuckled. “I said, 'I'm not going to baby you. If you're ready to come back and play goal, great. If you're afraid, then you're out.' She kept saying, 'No! No!' She stayed in. I don't know how many saves she had, but we ended up winning, 2-1.”
The next day, she had surgery on her left eye to reduce the pressure, then experienced two more (on each) in the ensuing months, the last on April 3, 2012.
“After each surgery, I had to sleep upright for two months; if you lay down, your eye pressure goes up,” LeClair said. “I couldn't look down, bend down, because that raises it. I had to have friends carry my book bag. I couldn't even look down to write.
“When I was at school, I had a lot of people looking out for me,” she added. “Random kids, administrators, teachers were always asking if I was OK, if I was following all my regulations. As much of a blessing as it was to be at school and having them there for me, it was hard because I'm 'Miss Independent.' I like to do everything for myself.
“I finally came to a realization that I had to follow the rules, and that I did need help. I had a stack of work to make up because, after each surgery, I'd miss a week and a half. Plus I missed a lot of half-days to go to regular checkups. I had to stay after school to make it all up.”
Last August, during double-session practices, Burgess asked LeClair when her next appointment would be, and her keeper said, “Not for a while.”
When the coach discovered the date was Sept. 17, the same day as their game against always-competitive Smithfield, she worried about LeClair's return.
“I prayed all week she'd be cleared, and that the intra-ocular pressure would be within normal limits,” Burgess said.
LeClair chuckled, “I called her 15 minutes after I found out. Once I left the building, I booked it across the parking lot and called her. 'Coach, I got cleared!' and she was, like, 'Yesssss!'”
Noted Burgess: “I just laughed and said, 'Alex, that's awesome! This is super! I'll see you at school.' She met me at my jeep and my feet were still three feet in the air. Now that was an emotional roller coaster. I gave her the biggest bear hug and said, 'Now, let's get ready!'”
The netminder, however, wasn't. A mere 40 seconds into the Smithfield contest, she allowed a goal, though Burrillville knotted it. The Sentinels scored once more, taking a 2-1 cushion into halftime.
“I was, like, 'What's going on?' but I didn't address Alex,” Burgess recalled. “I said, 'We've got swiss cheese for defense?' It wasn't only a big day for her but for all of us. I told the kids to get their heads in the game, and I knew it wasn't an indication of how Alex was going to play. I thought 'Something's off,' and we needed to get over it.
“The good news is we scored again and finished in a 2-2 tie, but we dominated the overtime. That's when we knew we had our game on, especially in OT. That gave us confidence.”
The Broncos didn't lose again.
“With us as a team, it was all hope and determination,” Burgess said. “Hope that everything would be OK for Alex and the doctors would get her disease under control for her to come back. It was also determination, that when she came back we'd all work harder than ever, and that she would be a great leader and the best goalie she could be.
“When she was cleared, I picked up her workload at practice because she had missed so many,” she added. “Sometimes it was unrelenting, but I knew her mindset. I wasn't going to settle for just having Alex back, and neither was she. She didn't want to let her team down, or herself.”
With a grin as wide as LeClair's goalie pads, she grinned, “And she didn't. She's one special girl.”