Orndoff loses court time but gains perspective at NAU
As much as anyone, Lauren Orndoff deserved a fitting senior sendoff at Northern Arizona University.
The Lumberjacks’ 2020-21 campaign was meant to be the culmination of quite a comeback story, one that took root when she could barely breathe on the basketball court as a sophomore and gained momentum through her ability to overcome a major medical obstacle and thrive as a junior just one year ago.
“I 100% in my head thought that this was going to be the year for me, and for our team in general,” the 22-year-old said whimsically during a break in her schedule in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Unfortunately for the 2017 South Medford High graduate, it wasn’t meant to be.
Her story on and off the court, however, is far from being completely written.
That’s the beauty of hope, and the will to persevere.
* * *
Basketball was a way of life for Orndoff growing up, an escape that allowed her to build confidence she never knew she could achieve.
She was 7 when she really started getting into the game. With an older brother, Ben, and the opportunity to play in local leagues with boys near her age, Orndoff developed an aggressive style of play.
Sure, she could hit open jump shots, but she just couldn’t help but want to mix it up and drive down the lane.
A water girl for the Panthers in her younger days, she dreamed of one day taking her turn for a program that played in three consecutive Class 6A state championships from 2012-14, winning it all that first year with a perfect 30-0 record.
Growing to become a 5-foot-10 versatile performer for South Medford, Orndoff wound up finishing her high school career ranked fifth on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,212 points as a four-year letterwinner.
This past year she was supplanted for that No. 5 spot by Bella Pedrojetti, but it was no matter to her. Orndoff was on to bigger and better at Northern Arizona, feeling revitalized after a life-changing event put her playing days in jeopardy early in 2019.
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“I had some chest pains even in high school here and there,” noted Orndoff. “We would go to the doctors and they would say it’s probably just stress-related.”
Her freshman year at Northern Arizona came and went without any real issues. Orndoff started 20 of the 28 games she appeared in, averaging 5.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists to show the Big Sky Conference stage would not be too big for the unassuming guard.
The 2018-19 sophomore season carried with it definite growth as a blossoming player under head coach Loree Payne at least until everything fell apart one fateful January night against Southern Utah.
She was a starter in every game that season — doubling her scoring average and with similar stats for rebounds and assists — but Game No. 14 would be her last. Eventually, Orndoff was left with a story of personal triumph worthy of a short documentary, “The Hidden Aspen” by NAU videographer Justin Susan, which was released this past weekend to rave reviews.
“It’s phenomenal,” Payne said of the documentary, available on YouTube. “Anytime you can have someone document a story, and such an inspiring story, is awesome. I think people need to know how resilient Lauren is and everything she’s been through and how strong she remains through it. It’s definitely inspirational for us and our program, and I think across the nation.”
* * *
The notion of stress-related chest pains turned to the likelihood that Orndoff simply had acid reflux by the time she was a sophomore in college.
“I was taking these antacids and Ibuprofen almost every day of practice and games until one game it stood out to me and it was completely different,” she said of the contest against Southern Utah. “I played in that game and it didn’t go well. I had told people my chest is hurting, my chest is hurting, but I just played on.”
With the hindsight of knowing more now, that game’s video shows Orndoff as a shell of herself, struggling to breathe and struggling with many of the skills that had led her to a top-10 ranking in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage in the Big Sky.
Orndoff likened it to trying to breathe through a straw while running up and down the court.
In reality, she was dealing with the kind of internal trauma consistent with being in a car accident.
An ensuing visit and overnight stay in the emergency room, complete with electrocardiogram, blood tests and X-rays, revealed a new word for Orndoff.
“The doctors found a pneumothorax,” she said, “and I didn’t know what that was. They kind of explained that it was a collapsed lung and I was like, whoa.”
“The doctor said it was pretty small and should’ve gone away by itself and usually does,” added Orndoff, “but it was just progressively worse and worse and I kept asking why did it even happen? Why am I getting it at 20 years old, female and healthy? They couldn’t really give me an answer.”
That’s when the frustration truly crept in, and took a long time to overcome.
* * *
A pneumothorax is an abnormal collection of air in the space between the lung and the chest wall, often called a collapsed lung because of its compression and impact on the ability to function.
Orndoff’s condition proved to be a spontaneous pneumothorax, which occurs without an apparent cause and in the absence of significant lung disease. Tall and thin adolescent males are typically at greatest risk, but females can also have this condition.
On average, about 20 cases of pneumothorax occur per 100,000 people per year, and many can be alleviated without surgery.
Orndoff was not so fortunate.
She carried an oxygen tank around campus, complete with a tube in her nose, for about a week after her ER visit in hopes that the condition would go away on its own. That didn’t work.
A chest tube was then inserted near her lung where the patch of air was causing her lung to be pressed down in hopes of filtering out that air. One week into it, that didn’t work.
Orndoff then repeated her outpatient surgery with another chest tube, and after it was taken out two weeks later, she felt some relief. For three days.
Frustration mounted. Steady appointments with doctors and ensuing X-rays and tests began to take a toll on her daily life as she helplessly watched her teammates continue without her and, subsequently, Orndoff had to withdraw from NAU for the spring semester to focus on her health.
“The entire thing just felt like the longest journey ever,” she recalled.
A third more invasive surgery in February 2019 made that journey even more epic.
Orndoff was prepared by her surgeon that the procedure would be painful and recovery would be slow after cutting out blebs (small air-filled lesions) at the top of her left lung that were causing it to collapse.
She was prepared in how the surgery also involved scraping her chest wall with metal scalpels to create natural scar tissue in hopes of reattaching her lung to the chest wall to have it function normally again.
She wasn’t prepared, however, for her pre-surgery epidural to fail, leaving her in intense pain after waking up in the ICU as nurses hurried to find some way to alleviate her discomfort.
With parents Mark and Jenny in town from Medford, along with NAU trainer Kristen Smith by her side throughout her ordeal, Orndoff spent a blur of a week in and out of sleep in her hospital bed. Lumberjacks teammates and coaches visited and lent support, and she was touched by well-wishes that poured in from friends near and far as she embarked on a recovery that took baby steps to another level.
“It was tough because I felt so strong right before this all went down and then I got to the point where I felt weaker than I have in my entire life,” said Orndoff, who after being discharged from the hospital was on bed rest for two weeks before starting the process of simply taking a slow walk around her apartment. “It was mentally exhausting but I had to keep that positive mindset and just keep asking my athletic trainer and my coaches and whoever else just, what’s next? What’s the next step?”
“I wanted to get on the basketball court and I wanted to participate,” she said, “but I also knew that I needed to be healthy. It’s kind of want versus need. Obviously I love basketball and it’s something I’ve always done, but I needed to be healthy for my long-term happiness.”
* * *
Orndoff admittedly didn’t have a ton of conflict in her life growing up in Oregon.
If there was an injury, it was something visible like an ankle or a knee that could be easily noted and treated.
What she experienced in her time of recovery was completely new and arduous. She credits a positive mindset and a tremendous support system for helping her return to the basketball court and start all 31 games last season for Northern Arizona.
As tough as the journey has been, Orndoff said what she got in return from her experiences was more than she ever could have imagined.
“I strongly believe that I came out of this a lot better than who I was previously,” she said. “It’s allowed me just to recognize the people that I have in my life and be present in those relationships. It’s just about recognizing how good I have it every day and all the little things that I took for granted previously.”
“Being a college athlete you’re just constantly going so fast,” added Orndoff. “You’re going to classes and meetings and lifts and whatever that you don’t really get to take the time to reflect on yourself or the people around you. During that time, even though I was busy and I had health concerns going on, I had a lot of time to myself and so I just got to recognize what I should be appreciating.”
That appreciation has led Orndoff to try and reassure loved ones that she is there for them as they have been for her.
“It’s always important to remind those people that you care about them and that you’re there,” she said, “because that’s one of the biggest things that got me through that time and so I realized that I need to be that for those people as well.”
* * *
Want versus need became an increasing dilemma as COVID-19 began to spread in the wake of Orndoff’s junior campaign.
There was no doubt she wanted to play basketball and finish her NAU career with a bang in the 2020-21 season.
There was also no doubt that her respiratory history made her an extremely high-risk athlete with so much uncertainty revolving around the coronavirus.
In the summer of 2020 she maintained hope all would clear before she embarked on her senior season.
It didn’t happen.
“I just was staying patient and hopeful,” said Orndoff, “but then once I got back to campus and our team was together and we were wearing masks in workouts and cases continued to rise in Arizona, I kind of started to lose that hope.”
For medical reasons, and on advice of her doctors, Orndoff had to step away from basketball yet again.
“It broke my heart,” she said. “My respiratory condition held me back from playing a season already and now I’m not having to make those hospital visits and I’m not having to go through those surgeries yet it’s still something that is holding me back.
“That’s frustrating because I thought I got over that and it’s done with and I never have to worry about that again. For COVID to be something that puts me at higher risk because of my previous condition was just so frustrating.”
Having to break the news to Payne was equally depressing.
“It was a tough conversation to have with her because I explained to her that I wasn’t ready to be done playing basketball,” she recalled, “that I felt unfulfilled with my experience here and there’s so much more success in store.”
As much as Orndoff can still function and be athletic, she is prone to having another pneumothorax occur after previously having one.
“I still live with that,” she said, “but I’m also not going to stop doing what I love out of fear.”
Unless, of course, it involves as much unknown risk as has surrounded COVID.
“For me, my health comes first and with my history of my previous medical condition, I just didn’t want to risk anything,” said Orndoff. “It’s not worth one year of basketball right now.”
Fortunately for Orndoff, the NCAA ruled that none of its athletes this year (competing or not) will be charged with a year of eligibility, meaning she has been able to hold out hope for a senior swansong after all.
Orndoff currently attends NAU practices and home games, getting tested for COVID three times per week like her teammates, but she does not play or travel with the team to limit her exposure.
“It was a little too risky for her to participate this year but she’s part of the team, as much as she can be, and we’re just really trying to preserve her health and her well-being,” said Payne, whose team is 6-7 overall and 4-5 in Big Sky play entering today’s game at Montana State.
“She’s just on the sideline kind of seeing things through a coach’s lens,” added the fourth-year coach. “She struggles a little bit with it because I know she wants to be out there really, really bad. Obviously she’s a heck of a player and we want her out there but at the end of the day with her being at higher risk, we can’t put her in any position that would compromise her health.”
That’s not to say Orndoff isn’t having an impact this season with the Lumberjacks. With 65 starts in 73 games played at NAU and averages of 7.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists, she has considerable value for Payne and company.
“For us, it’s really important to have her on the sidelines because she has a great voice, she sees the game really well and she’s very encouraging to her teammates,” said the coach. “It’s definitely nice to have her helping out in any way that she can.”
“I know for her, she’s kind of tired of all these perspective lessons that she’s been learning through college,” added Payne, “but I think it’s really given her some really great perspective and I think it’s really continued to inspire her love for the game and passion for the game. We’re really hopeful with potential vaccines and everything moving forward that she will have an opportunity to finish her career at NAU.”
* * *
A documentary on Orndoff’s journey in Arizona never was part of her thought process.
Susan, who works with NAU’s athletic department, originally reached out to Orndoff to have her participate in a documentary he was planning on what it was like for athletes to participate in sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I responded that I actually was not participating in sports this year but good luck,” said Orndoff. “He said that’s fine but that he’d still like to hear about my experiences.”
A two-hour interview then turned into an epiphany. Three months of filming and production later, a documentary solely on Orndoff was the byproduct.
“It just turned out so awesome,” said Orndoff, who also works now as a social media intern in the NAU athletic department. “This documentary just did such an amazing job of covering my experiences and allowing me to tell my story how I wanted and needed to tell it because there were people who just didn’t understand.”
Orndoff said opening up about her experiences was more cathartic than she ever could have imagined. Typically someone who holds things close to her pretty sacred, she found the process very freeing.
“It’s something I will have forever and can look back on my experience positively rather than in a negative light and closed off about it because of how traumatic it was,” she said. “I can look at that documentary and it’s empowering almost to myself, like yeah, I really did that, I got through that. It was just a really cool experience.”
In short order, Orndoff has gotten a lot of welcomed feedback on what the documentary has meant to others.
“It just kind of shows the power of social media and how many people can see it that you just don’t even know,” said Orndoff, whose middle name Aspen helped inspire the intimate title. “It’s just awesome how me telling my story can inspire others, and others that I don’t even know. There are these people who I never met saying that I love this or you inspire me, and that’s just really awesome.”
Such attention and support have been well-deserved, according to Payne, who has been impressed by how Orndoff has navigated her health crisis and beyond.
“It’s just been fun watching her journey, growing from when she got here as a freshman,” said the coach. “I think sometimes when you have challenging situations it does make you grow up fast and so just watching her continue to mature and evolve and grow as a person and as a player has been really special to watch and be a part of.”
As for Orndoff, she’s on track to graduate with a communications degree in May and return to NAU for a master’s degree as well as some unfinished business on the basketball court in 2021-22.
More than anything, though, she’s taking to heart the lessons she’s learned along the way.
“I’m just kind of taking it day by day,” she exhaled.