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“One doctor said it was a one-in-a-billion chance of it happening,” Carrie Pabst said of the unexpected setback that led to the partial loss of her daughter's leg.

Courtney Pabst is a Setter on a New Path

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any of the details are fuzzy. The days before, of and after Courtney Pabst had a second ACL surgery on her left knee are a blur. Her mother, Carrie Pabst, helps fill in the blanks.

Pabst does remember her feelings leading up to the day. She was confident. After all, she’d been through a successful ACL repair before. But nobody anticipated what would happen this time.

On Nov. 1, 2018, Pabst, a women’s lacrosse player at Pace, underwent what was supposed to be a routine procedure. Her mother used to work in a hospital and knew the emergency codes the doctors and nurses were frantically using while she sat in the waiting room with her older daughter.

She just didn’t anticipate the codes being related to Courtney. Then, the doctors came out.

“My initial fear was that I had lost her because I knew all the codes and having watched all the doctors run in,” she said. “I thought she was gone.”

Doctors later discovered that a fatty embolism from Pabst’s right leg traveled up to her heart and lungs, which triggered cardiac arrest. 

“One doctor said it was a one-in-a-billion chance of it happening,” Carrie Pabst said.

The next day, Courtney Pabst went into surgery, again. Doctors attached plastic tubes to an ECMO machine, a form of life support which drains blood from the vein, adds oxygen and helps pump blood through the body.

There were more setbacks ahead. Heparin, the drug Pabst was given to combat the heart attack, caused her body to swell, and the swelling never went down. All of her limbs turned black. She was allergic. On Nov. 3, she prepared for her third surgery in three days.

To alleviate pressure in her limbs, she underwent compartmental surgeries on her legs and feet. The hope was that doctors would be able to save her limbs. The procedures were not 100-percent successful.

On Nov. 13, Pabst had the lower part of her right leg amputated a little more than halfway up her shin. Doctors also completed the ACL repair on her left knee.. She said she was released from the hospital on Dec. 8, 38 days after she first went in for surgery.

“The whole hospital stay, she was like a ray of sunshine for everybody,” Carrie Pabst said. “She would do her [physical therapy], and she’d be so strong. They were amazed at the things she could do.”

To this day, Courtney Pabst said she’s had no subsequent problems with her heart or lungs, and doctors said she shouldn’t expect to have any. Her life was saved, although it wouldn’t be the same.

Her lacrosse career was over.

“She might not be able to do everything, but she’ll try. There are times that she can’t, but she tries, which is all we can ask. She hasn’t mastered the plank yet. Will she? Yes, she will. I’m sure of that.” — Carrie Pabst

Pabst, who hails from East Patchogue, N.Y., chose to attend Pace after a “stressful” recruiting process. She said she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do with her life, hence the struggles in choosing where she’d spend her college years. She described Pace, tucked away in the hills of Pleasantville, N.Y., about 40 minutes north of New York City, as an up-and-coming university with new athletics facilities.

As a freshman in 2016, Pabst started all 18 games and totaled 28 goals, 23 assists and 58 draw controls, leading the Setters to a 10-8 record. She suffered her first ACL tear in 2017, missing the final five games and playoffs. In 13 starts, she scored 29 goals and chipped in 24 assists.

“It was just something I had never experienced before,” Pabst said. “It’s a long recovery. Initially, there’s not much you can do, and you have to accept the small progressions that you’re making.”

She came back healthy in 2018 and posted her best season, scoring 48 goals with 34 assists in 19 games (17 starts). In the last game of the season, a 17-11 loss to Le Moyne in a Northeast-10 tournament semifinal, she recorded four assists.

It was the last collegiate game she’d ever play.

During a fall scrimmage against Quinnipiac, Pabst tore her ACL again, leading to the string of complications that have now changed her life.

“It was hard, and there was always the thought that I could never do this again,” Pabst said. “I think what helped was the fact that I had missed part of the year before. I missed the last five games and the playoffs when I tore my ACL the first time. That was so disappointing to me at the time, so I was a little bit accustomed to [sitting out].”

Despite a tumultuous two months, Pabst returned to Pace in January 2019. “I was ready for the social aspect of college, but definitely not the academics,” she said.

She transported herself to and from classes in a wheelchair, since she did not yet have a prosthetic. Friends and teammates helped her complete what used to be ordinary tasks, like grocery shopping. She struggled at first to accept it.

“The mental struggle, it didn’t come right away. It didn’t happen in the hospital or when I was home from the hospital,” she said. “It happened when I started to depend on people because I couldn’t do things normally.”

Pace coach Tricia Molfetta described Pabst as “bubbly yet stubborn.” Molfetta was hired in November 2017, so she didn’t recruit Pabst. But she recognized her tenacity and commitment right away.

“That 2019 season, she came right back in January like nothing had changed,” Molfetta said. “Freezing cold, on her crutches, still no prosthetic at the time, and she was as present as possible. 

“Some days were harder than others. It wasn’t always easy for her to sit. She’s not a cheerleader type. I would not describe her as ‘rah-rah, go team’ on the sidelines. She’s a steady presence, a lead-by-example kid.”

Molfetta was one of the first people to visit the hospital when she heard of what happened. Carrie Pabst said Molfetta was “with us every day.” Former Pace dean Lisa Bardill Moscaritolo and athletic director Mark Brown soon followed. Tom Mariano, the men’s lacrosse coach, sent a motivational meme that was soon printed on a larger board. 

“There aren’t enough words to say how truly incredible that team is,” Carrie Pabst said. Her voice wavered as she recalled the outpouring of support. ”They called me the second they all found out, every parent asking me whatever they could do.”

After Carrie Pabst joked that she’d kill for some Crocs to wear around the hospital, a parent brought her a pair. “It’s a truly humbling experience to go through,” she said. “Truly humbling.”


The Pace women's lacrosse team.

Pabst experienced wound issues after her amputation, and bone spurs causing discomfort prompted another surgery in June 2019. A plastic surgeon came in so the wounds would heal properly, enabling her to get fitted for a prosthetic.

This past August, she finally got her first prosthetic. The third and most recent one, a vacuum suction prosthetic made by Össur, provides her more confidence and could be a longer-term solution.

Pabst has regained some normalcy thanks to the new prosthetic, which features a liner that goes directly onto her skin. She can go on jogs. She can play lacrosse in the backyard with her younger brother. Some exercises, like planks that require balancing with both feet on the floor, are still difficult.

“She’s going to keep fighting,” Carrie Pabst said. “She might not be able to do everything, but she’ll try. There are times that she can’t, but she tries, which is all we can ask. She hasn’t mastered the plank yet. Will she? Yes, she will. I’m sure of that.”

Pabst and her family have found inspiration in Noelle Lambert’s story. On July 30, 2016, Lambert injured her leg in a moped accident in Martha’s Vineyard and had it amputated above the knee. Not only did she return to the field for UMass-Lowell, she scored a goal on April 7, 2018, against Hartford.

Now, she’s a U.S. Paralympic sprinter and founder of the Born to Run Foundation, which “will help young people receive specialized prosthetics that will allow them to live a fun and fulfilling life.”

Stonehill, which plays in the NE10, is coached by Katie Conover, Lambert’s cousin. Molfetta reached out to Conover hoping to help connect Pabst with Lambert. They now text often.

“It was comforting to hear from her,” Pabst said.

“Me going through everything that I went through, I thought it was important for me to reach out and support her any way I could,” Lambert said. “If I could get through something like this, she could 100 percent get through it.”

They’ve yet to meet, though there were plans for a Born to Run fundraiser game this season before COVID-19 wiped out the remainder of the schedule. “I know once I do meet her, it’ll be like we already met,” Lambert said.

What immediately struck Lambert was Pabst’s head-on approach to overcoming this new challenge.

“In the beginning, she was very positive. I could tell that she was very strong,” Lambert said. “Usually when I meet people who are just becoming amputees, you don’t know how they’re going to react. They’re going through such traumatic situations. Immediately, she was so open and so positive.”

That attitude will help Pabst begin her professional career. She just finished her undergraduate degree in May and still has certifications exams to complete so she can become a math teacher, just like her grandmother. Pabst student-taught before the pandemic closed schools.

Her students didn’t mention anything about her prosthetic until a few days before remote learning began.

“I was like, ‘Finally! I’ll tell you what happened,’” Pabst said. “I’ve learned that it’s something I have to address right away in the future.

“I think at first, I struggled with the staring in public. Little kids, I was always so intrigued by their response. They’re always so curious. It was the adults who would stare. At first, it was irritating. I didn’t want to answer those questions.”

Although Pabst’s life may now be different, she said she’s thankful that her post-college aspirations weren’t necessarily impacted by her injury. And while her lacrosse career didn’t end on her own terms, she’s learned to live in the moment and be grateful.

The details may still be fuzzy, but the weeks and months since the unexpected hurdle have become ingrained in her mind forever.

“She’s a walking miracle,” Carrie Pabst said.