With North Texas volleyball (17-11, 10-4 Conference USA last season) set to begin its season on Feb. 4 against Wichita State (6-19, 6-10 American Athletic Conference last season) in its first official match since the fall of 2019, one key player will make a long-awaited return of her own. After working her way back from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, senior setter Kaliegh Skopal will have a chance to play in her first match since being sidelined in November 2019.
Skopal was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome on Nov. 4, 2019, during the volleyball team’s trip to Florida for two conference matches. Before the diagnosis, she went to the emergency room on Nov. 1 after experiencing severe headaches and being unable to walk on her own. At that point, she was treated for a migraine but as her symptoms worsened the next day and she struggled at practice, it became clear she was dealing with something else.
“By Sunday morning [Nov. 3], that was the second time I entered the hospital,” Skopal said. “My hands were having issues opening up, I couldn’t really walk normally, all kinds of different things. I really lost all fine motor skills, and that’s when I was really concerned. So, Sunday was when I went to the emergency room and did a bunch of testing, then I got admitted that night and diagnosed the next morning.”
Guillain-Barré Syndrome is a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks its nerves, according to the Mayo Clinic. Its cause is unknown, with symptoms ranging from severe pain to difficulty breathing or weakness in the legs which can spread to the upper body. In those early days after her diagnosis, Skopal said not knowing if or when she could return to the volleyball court was difficult.
“Volleyball has been everything for me for so long,” Skopal said. “It was really hard to deal with the fact that it was just taken away so quickly, and not knowing when I was gonna return. […] Whenever I got to wrap my head around what I was dealing with and what my future looked like as far as therapy and stuff like that, I was pretty set that I was gonna make it back and there was no one that was gonna change my mind.”
After starting conference play 7-2 in the 2019 season, head coach Andrew Palileo said losing Skopal with five matches left before the C-USA tournament was a big blow to the team.
“We could adjust for the first couple games, we won both of those matches in Florida without her,” Palileo said. “But once teams saw what we could do and what our positives and negatives were with the new setter, it was easier to plan against us. Florida International and Florida Atlantic didn’t have time, so we were able to still do pretty much what we wanted to do. But once the video was out there on what our limitations were with the setting change, we lost to two teams that we probably shouldn’t have lost to.”
Palileo stayed with Skopal in Florida while the rest of the team returned home from the road trip, ensuring she had a familiar face with her at the hospital until her family was able to make the trip from Texas. Skopal said Palileo and her teammates were very supportive throughout the recovery process.
“From the start, [my teammates] have been the most supportive,” Skopal said. “I could not have asked for more. Pali [stayed] in Florida to make sure that my family and I were taken care of whenever I was in the hospital. I got calls and check-ins all the time, then whenever I did come back up to school and was with them in the spring, I still wasn’t able to do a lot on my own. I wasn’t allowed to drive, so they were all over it, helping me get where I needed to go, to and from therapy, helping me with my groceries. Anything that I needed help with, they were there, before I could even ask them.”
Skopal said her first step in recovery after returning home from Florida was spending two weeks at a rehab hospital regaining fine motor skills like being able to eat on her own, shower by herself and regain strength in her ankles so she could walk normally again.
“I went through all those basic needs that I had to get done on my own, that was what the rehab hospital was,” Skopal said. “Therapy, after that, was slowly building up and building my endurance again, because my endurance was crap from the beginning. Building up endurance, and as the months went on it was just getting back into volleyball shape.”
One milestone in her journey back came on Feb. 20, 2020, when Skopal returned to the court and hit a set to a teammate for the first time since she was diagnosed with GBS. A video of Skopal’s set was posted to the team’s Twitter account the same day, and senior outside hitter Barbara Martin said seeing the moment made her fully realize Skopal would return.
“That was when I fully realized, Kaliegh’s going to be back,” Martin said. “The last time I saw her, her ankles were bending in and she still couldn’t open her hands. All of a sudden, she’s setting again. I was like, ‘Wow — she has gone above and beyond on her rehab and worked her little tail off.’”
Having been fully cleared from therapy in June of 2020 — around eight months after her diagnosis — Skopal said returning home in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic helped accelerate her rehab process.
“Then we all got sent home from school for COVID,” Skopal said. “That’s when a lot of progress was made, ‘cause I was literally doing nothing but therapy at home and school. I focused a lot on that and that’s where strides started to be made and then I was just able to start coming back and playing whenever we reported back in the summer.”
After being fully cleared from therapy last summer, Skopal was able to resume normal practices with the team as they returned in July. Although Martin said she expected Skopal would ultimately recover and return to volleyball, she also said seeing Skopal recover so quickly from GBS was mind-blowing for her.
“It was mind-blowing,” Martin said. “Honestly, I didn’t think that she would come back as fast as she did. She’s incredible. She is the hardest worker I’ve ever met, on and off the court, with everything she does. […] She’s kinda my calm me down buddy. Just her presence on the court calms me down. I definitely missed that a lot and I’m excited to be able to play with her again.”
With volleyball’s season shifting from fall to the spring semester this year due to COVID-19, Palileo said having Skopal back at the setter position will be a big boost for the team.
“That’s like your quarterback, your point guard, whatever metaphor you wanna use as far as a setter goes,” Palileo said. “It definitely gives us experience and stability on how to run what we want to run. We’re super excited just to see her back on the court, coming back and playing at this level, practicing this hard. If you would’ve seen her when it happened, there’s no way you would’ve thought that this would be what happened, that quick.”
For her part, Skopal said she is excited for the season and grateful to her family, teammates and community for helping her return to volleyball.
“It’s just a lot of excitement I think, and just a lot of gratitude too to the people that helped me get where I am,” Skopal said. “I wouldn’t have made it by myself, obviously. I’m just thankful that I do have this opportunity because it could have gone a lot differently and some people suffer way more than I did. I’m just thankful that I have the opportunity to be back out here with them.”
Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles