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St. Mary's star plays through the pain in comeback after brain tumor

Hannah Mulhern is in pain.

It won’t go away any time soon, if ever, though she takes medication to manage it.

The daily pain she endures serves as a reminder of just how fortunate the St. Mary’s of Lancaster girls’ volleyball star is to be running, jumping, feeling and being alive.

Mulhern is a 17-year-old senior who has overcome a brain tumor to be more than a contributor for the defending state Catholic-champion Lancers. The 6-foot-2 Mulhern has worked her way into being one of St. Mary’s key players, again, as the Lancers prepare for the Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association playoffs. The regular-season champion Lancers will face the lowest remaining seed in a semifinal match Monday at Cardinal O’Hara.

Mulhern already has exceeded her season blocks total from last year (she has 44 compared to 43).

In fact, Mulhern played one of her best matches Thursday in a No. 1 Portville versus No. 2 St. Mary’s showdown. She had nine kills, six blocks and had a .429 hitting percentage in a five-set loss to the reigning Class C state champions.

“Last year she played spectacular. She was one of the dominant hitters in Western New York,” Lancers coach Don Pieczynski said. “I can’t say she’s there (at that level) yet, but she’s getting better every day. … Even Hannah at 50 percent is still a factor.”

“It’s definitely been difficult,” Mulhern said, “but I love the sport so much that I’d rather struggle than not play at all.”

Warning sign

A throbbing headache appeared following practice with her club team eight months ago. Medicine and rest didn’t help it go away as the pain worsened the next day. That’s when her parents took her to Urgent Care.

After it was initially thought that she had meningitis due to the ineffectiveness of pain medication, Mulhern was sent to Children’s Hospital for further examination. After performing tests, it was thought she had a virus and bad migraine until one resident physician ordered a CAT scan.

Doctors discovered a benign brain tumor. It developed at the base of Mulhern's brain and wrapped around her spine and a major artery. It had grown to the point where it started hitting the biggest nerve in her head, creating intense pain.

That wound up being a good thing.

“Most people end up paralyzed and never feel it (until it’s too late),” she said. “The only reason I did is the tumor invaded a nerve area. If it hadn’t done that, I’d either be paralyzed or dead.”

Mulhern was admitted to the hospital on Feb. 21. Six days later, on her 17th birthday, she underwent seven hours of surgery to have most of the tumor removed. Dr. Deetai Lee performed the procedure. She was confined to a wheelchair due to issues with her equilibrium then resumed walking.

Mulhern needed a second surgery, but she delayed it in order to take her AP exams.

The rest of the tumor was removed on May 23, a delicate 12-hour procedure at Buffalo General under the direction of Dr. Adnan Siddiqui. Mulhern had developed bursitis on her hip and was confined to a wheelchair after the surgery.

Back in the swing

Wheelchair life didn’t prevent Mulhern from being a team leader during recovery. She had heard that some of her teammates had not been at open gym to prepare for the coming season.

A few days after being released from the hospital, Mulhern had her mother drive her to open gym.

“If we were going to be good this year, we had to start going,” Mulhern said. “I said if I was going in a wheelchair, then my teammates better be showing up, too.”

They did, with Mulhern showing up for vocal and moral support. She progressed from sitting in a wheelchair to walking with a cane and walker in early July.

Mulhern received clearance from her doctor to resume physical activity at the end of July. She wasted little time showing up to the next open gym session.

However, since she couldn’t do offseason training, she had some issues.

“It was extremely tough. I came home crying the first few days because I was so upset I was so bad,” Mulhern said.  “I hadn’t like moved in so long. I was slower. It was more difficult to lift my arms. I could barely jump.”

That’s no longer the case. She still isn’t where she totally wants to be at as a player but, “I’m pretty close to where I was last year,” she said. “I’ve totally improved.”

Last season, Mulhern collected first team All-Western New York honors as a junior when she had 315 kills and a .312 hitting percentage while helping St. Mary’s win its 16th state title. This season, she has 180 kills and a .263 hitting percentage.

Mulhern will have to get an MRI every three months for the rest of her life to make sure there are no potential tumors. Still, this experience has made her realize that she would like to help others much like her doctors helped her, so she wants to major in neuroscience.

She has yet to decide on which college to attend, nor does she know if she will play volleyball. Academics, not athletics, will drive her decision.

For the time being, Mulhern only has one goal.

“I’m hoping we’ll win states,” she said.

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