The scariest part for Taylor Williamson wasn’t brain surgery. The 2015 Minnesota Ms. Hockey award winner had an avocado-sized cyst removed from her frontal lobe last April. But the moment that terrified Williamson and her Gophers teammates most came months later.
She was on the bench Sept. 29 for the season opener when a swarm of symptoms hit her all at once: trouble speaking, droopy right eye, double vision.
“It was the most helpless feeling I’ve ever had,” Williamson said. “I could barely see and talk. When I told [assistant coach Joel Johnson], he said, ‘You’ve got to say it to me, Taylor.’
“I was like, ‘I’m trying to say it.’ ”
The Gophers watched Williamson battle what doctors eventually diagnosed as a rare autoimmune disorder, unrelated to her brain surgery, called myasthenia gravis.
Williamson missed 3½ months but has re-emerged in time to spark a late-season surge for Minnesota. The junior forward scored the winning goal against Wisconsin last Sunday, keeping the Gophers’ season alive for Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal rematch with the Badgers in Madison.
“There are a lot of people who said she won’t be able to ever come back,” Gophers junior Sophie Skarzynski said. “She is such an inspiration to us. There aren’t really any words to explain what she means to this team.”
Williamson’s grandfather, Murray, was an All-America forward for the Gophers hockey team in 1959 who went on to coach the men’s U.S. Olympic team to the silver medal in 1972.
Her father, Dean, played center for the Gophers from 1987 to 1990. Williamson’s own career blossomed at Edina High School, where coach Laura Slominski called her “the kind of player I’ll only get to coach once in a career.”
Williamson won an NCAA championship with the Gophers as a freshman, notching five goals, 10 assists. But by the end of her sophomore year, something wasn’t quite right.
She began having spells at night when she had trouble speaking. She knew the words but said it was like talking with a spoonful of peanut butter in her mouth.
“The reason I didn’t say anything [at first] was because I was a healthy student-athlete playing Division I hockey, to be honest,” Williamson said.
She thought it might be a food allergy or stress. When the symptoms persisted during a vacation to Arizona with teammates, she knew it wasn’t stress.
Her mother, Beth, convinced her to see a doctor. An MRI exam showed the cyst, and one day later, April 5, Williamson was on the operating table.
“After brain surgery, I thought we were doing really good, no symptoms,” Williamson said.
But when the Gophers resumed training in July, she started having issues again. It wasn’t just difficulty speaking, but muscle weakness. Her neurologist assured that her brain scans were “pristine,” so her condition was a mystery right through that harrowing season opener against Merrimack.
“It was devastating,” Skarzynski said. “It was so hard to watch because she’s probably the hardest-working person I know and the kindest person I know.”
That night, doctors tested Williamson for myasthenia gravis (MG), which derives from the Greek and Latin words meaning “grave muscular weakness.” MG is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s defense system works against itself, attacking connections between nerve and muscle, causing fatigue.
Dr. Ted Burns, a University of Virginia neurologist, is a leading expert in these disorders and said he had never heard of a college athlete with MG. He said there are only about 30,000-60,000 known cases in the United States.
There is no cure, but Burns said he wasn’t surprised to hear of Williamson’s turnaround.
“Our expectation is to get it under control,” Burns said. “It’s not what we would call a progressive disorder. It’s a chronic autoimmune disorder, so we have lots of treatment options.”
Williamson now takes three medications to treat MG. It took doctors months to pinpoint the right dosages. Frost acknowledged he was “really concerned” about Williamson ever playing again.
“If her slapshot was normally 60 miles an hour, it couldn’t have been more than 30 miles an hour,” Frost said. “Her stride was no more than 50 percent of what it is when she is full speed.”
Williamson said her main quest was less about hockey and more about regaining a normal life. At the depths of her struggle, being around teammates was the best medicine.
“I had a couple hours each day to just be myself and not be insecure about my talking or any sort of symptom,” Williamson said. “My teammates were always going to be here and love me for who I am.”
Williamson returned to game action Jan. 13. Frost said she has improved to the point where “she is better now than she was last year.”
Williamson’s third goal in eight games gave the Gophers a second-period lead against Wisconsin last Sunday, and they held on to win 3-1 in the WCHA playoffs championship game. Facing elimination, the Gophers needed that win for the automatic NCAA tournament berth.
“At the end of the game, with 13 seconds left, Frosty threw me out [onto the ice], and I was like crying because I’m so proud of this team,” Williamson said. “I’m so blessed to be playing hockey again.”