After Battling Childhood Epilepsy, Strzepek Is Making His Mark For Monomoy Lacrosse

by Brad Joyal
Despite suffering from epilepsy, Monomoy junior Cole Strzepek, 17, has been able to return to sports after undergoing a successful corrective procedure in March 2020. Strzepek plays defense for Monomoy’s boys lacrosse team, which is heading to the Division 4 state tournament. COURTESY PHOTO Despite suffering from epilepsy, Monomoy junior Cole Strzepek, 17, has been able to return to sports after undergoing a successful corrective procedure in March 2020. Strzepek plays defense for Monomoy’s boys lacrosse team, which is heading to the Division 4 state tournament. COURTESY PHOTO

HARWICH – For years, sports weren’t an option for Harwich native Cole Strzepek.

After suffering a seizure just before he turned 10 years old, Strzepek was diagnosed with epilepsy, a brain condition that causes recurring seizures. Although his condition impacted his daily life throughout grade school, Strzepek underwent a surgical procedure in early 2020 and has been seizure free ever since.

Now Strzepek, a 17-year-old junior, is able to enjoy being a kid while he immerses himself in school and sports. He feels especially at home on the lacrosse field, where he competes on Monomoy Regional High School’s varsity team.

“It feels back to normal,” Strzepek said. “I feel energetic when I get ready for school and I just want to go out and see my friends and have fun.”

Although he may look like his peers as he fights to scoop up a ground ball or body checks an opponent, Strzepek’s road to the lacrosse field was hardly easy for him and his family.

“Cole had a lot of presentations of his seizures,” said his mother, Erica. “Sometimes they could be quite mild and benign and people wouldn’t notice. Others would be a traditional seizure where he would collapse. You can have a seizure and fall and injure yourself, and he had multiple instances where he was injured.”

Watching Cole navigate through school with epilepsy was especially challenging for Erica and her husband, Eric. Gone were the days of Cole being able to head off to school without worry. Instead, the family was constantly planning — and preparing — for what could go wrong if he experienced a seizure away from home.

“His school life was completely upended from being a fun, active student to needing supervising care to make sure he didn’t injure himself at school inadvertently while having a seizure,” Erica said. “Some people have triggers and others do not, and he didn’t always know when a seizure was about to start.”

Strzepek’s condition required multiple trips from Cape Cod Hospital to Boston Children’s Hospital, a reality of epilepsy that helped Erica recognize just how much her son’s health had deteriorated.

“At one point, I realized how sick my son was when the transport team from Cape Cod Hospital recognized him because they had already transported him to Boston Children’s another time,” she said.

When Cole was in sixth grade, an attempted surgical procedure proved to be unsuccessful as the medical team at Boston Children’s couldn’t learn enough information about his condition. In March 2020, Cole returned to Boston Children’s for a second attempt that resulted in some better news.

“My doctor came in and said, ‘We found the epilepsy,’” Cole remembers, “and they were able to do the surgery and get it out.”

The timing of the surgery came at an overwhelming and unprecedented time around the world. A couple days later, Massachusetts shut down due to the pandemic, and Cole was one of the only surgical patients at Boston Children’s. After remaining in the hospital for approximately three weeks, he was able to return to Harwich and continue his recovery.

“The upside of that was the whole world was in a pause and Cole really needed a pause,” Erica said.

The road to recovery was hardly quick. As much as Cole wanted to learn to skate and play ice hockey, his return to sports came on the lacrosse field, where he was gradually able to ease into returning to an active lifestyle before being cleared for contact sports.

“It took him a couple seasons before he was even allowed to play contact sports and be cleared medically,” said Erica, who admitted she is often too nervous to watch his games.

“I have only been to a few games. I get so nervous,” she said. “My husband goes to most of the games and he’s like, ‘Yup, he’s doing it. He’s totally fine.’ As a mom, it’s really hard for me to see the other children on our team or the other team. I get so winced because it’s a rough game.”

For Cole, representing his high school and competing as a defenseman for the Sharks is a blessing and a milestone in his recovery.

“It’s been fun,” he said. “I played baseball but didn’t really like it because you just stand there and do nothing, so I thought I’d play lacrosse with my friends. I like there’s more of an adrenaline rush.”

Throughout his battle, Cole and his family received support from the Harwich community, including the town’s fire department. In 2019, the family hosted “Cole’s Socks for Smiles,” a sock drive that resulted in thousands of socks being donated to Boston Children’s.

“I think we were really low as a family at that point,” Erica said. “He had already gone through the first round of the corrective procedure which we weren’t able to do, and he got a lot sicker. I think relying on the community to help hold us up and come up with positive things was really important.”

After relying on the community during their times of struggle, the Strzepeks are now helping other families who are facing similar circumstances.

“Living on the Cape presented a unique opportunity where the resources our family needed at the time were hard to find,” Erica said. “There were adult groups for epilepsy but there weren’t child groups for epilepsy or groups for families that were going through what we were going through. I did a lot of work to find that community off-Cape and find those resources.

“Because we were so open about the experience we were going through, in the years since I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me from the epilepsy community on Cape that are going through something similar with their child. While I’m not a medical professional, I can share some of the things that I learned and we learned to ask about. That’s been a silver lining, that I’ve been able to connect with other families who are going through something that can be very frightening. Hopefully we can be of service to those families and help them — that’s something that I’ve found to be a positive during a very dark time.”