Her Sport Almost Killed Her, But That Won’t Stop Her

Berkeley rugby player won’t let fear get in the way of playing the game and working to expand its reach

 Ceara Lafferty walks off the rugby field at Estuary Park in Alameda after practice ended on June 12. (Photo: Elena Mateus)

Ceara Lafferty walks off the rugby field at Estuary Park in Alameda after practice ended on June 12. (Photo: Elena Mateus)

Ceara Lafferty was lying down on a cot at the Highland Hospital in Oakland with a thick plastic tube sticking out of her nose and another shooting out of her stomach when her family came to visit her. They came and asked her the question that no athlete wants to hear: “Are you going to keep playing?”  For the 6’0 rugby player, the answer was yes, even when her sport nearly killed her.

Lafferty went to the emergency room on April 21 after a kick to the stomach during a game punctured her intestine. She was rushed into emergency surgery to save her life after bile and stomach acid began dissolving her internal organs. Despite the injury, Lafferty, who also works for USA rugby, is expected to make a full recovery and has decided to keep playing competitively and keep expanding the sport that is part of her identity.

“My family was understandably upset when I didn’t quit, but rugby is a huge part of my story,” she said, “How could I just leave it behind now after one thing happened?”

Lafferty was playing for the Berkeley All Blues in the Northern California Women’s Club Division II Finals when she thought she just got the wind knocked out of her after a tackle. But when the captain of the team did not immediately get up after making the tackle from behind, coach Evan Hoese took her off the field. “She is our captain and a powerhouse. She always gets back up, so when she didn’t, I took it seriously,” she said.

It was not until later that evening during the team social at a local bar that Lafferty realized she needed to go to the emergency room. “I ate something and started feeling an escalating pain,” she said, “As the night progressed I could not walk anymore because of it.”

Her girlfriend rushed her to the Alta Bates emergency room in Berkeley where she was told she had a laceration in her liver and was fine, but needed to be observed at Highland Hospital. Once there, the radiologist looked at her CT scan and saw fluid in the abdomen. “The doctor said I must have a hole in my bowels,” she said, “Then they told me I needed emergency surgery ASAP.”

Lafferty’s final diagnosis was a laceration in her liver and gastrointestinal perforation in the duodenum of her intestine. Even with maximum treatment, the risk of death for gastrointestinal perforation can be as high as 50 percent, according to a 2008 study by The Medical Clinics of North America.

Though the surgery was successful and Lafferty was released after 7 days in the hospital, she  was left with more questions than answers. “I could have died from this, so it made me question everything I had done in my life,” she said, “Was I okay with everything I was doing?”

Those close to Lafferty, like teammate Alyssa Collins, knew that playing rugby was something she would always continue doing. “I was not surprised at all when she came back to practice,” Collins said, “She is back on the pitch already and it is absolutely representative of how dedicated and passionate she is.”

During her first practice back on June 12, Lafferty was able to jog but not much else. But that didn’t stop her from high-fiving her teammates during sprints or pulling aside a player to explain how shifting the ball creates space. “She is one of the most selfless players I have ever seen. She puts everybody’s well being above her own,” said coach Hoese.

For Lafferty, rugby is something that runs deeper than an 80-minute game: “There is an unbeatable feeling you get when you run through 3 people trying to tackle you at full speed, sure,” she said, “But it’s about more than that, it’s about the community that has empowered me to be my true self.”

Lafferty started playing rugby when she was a freshman at Cal in 2013. She knew she wanted to play a team sport and after her first practice with the Cal Women’s Rugby team, she never looked back. “The team understood me and gave me the strength to come out as queer,” she said, “Everyone is unapologetically themselves and they validated my existence.”

Now, since graduating, Lafferty has dedicated her time to developing youth rugby on behalf of USA Rugby. In her role as the Impact Beyond program coordinator, she provides free flag rugby curriculum to schools in the Bay Area as part of the World Cup effort to assess the host area’s needs. By the time the World Cup kicks off in San Francisco this July, Impact Beyond will have brought rugby to 75 schools and 22,500 kids across the bay area, according to the USA Rugby site. “This sport has given me so much,” she said, “My hope is that rugby can do the same for others, especially young girls, who deserve to feel strong and empowered.”

Lafferty is expected to begin full contact practices in October and will continue teaching rugby curriculum ahead of the World Cup from July 20-22 in San Francisco. She said, “I decided that I wasn’t going to let the fear of something happening keep me from doing what I love."