The constant feeling of being in pain is something Red Mountain sophomore Tylerr Birk has fought through the last two years.
In many ways, it’s helped her become who she is today: A self-driven, motivated soccer player who won’t let a rare dispirited get in the way of her dreams on the pitch. Even if it is unbearable at times.
“It’s like a constant burning, tingling and feeling like I have barbed wire wrapped tightly around my left arm at all times,” Birk said, admitting the pain was present during her interview with The Tribune. “It’s really hard. I try to focus on school, soccer or other things to take my mind off of it.”
Birk was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), a rare nerve disorder that occurred two years ago after she broke a growth plate in her left arm.
The disorder, which affects less than 200,000 people per year, has left her in a constant state of pain in the arm even after the growth plate healed, at times spiking into a major episode.
“When I flair up, which means the intensity goes up for a moment at a time, I have breathing techniques, I do aroma therapy, I meditate and I also paint,” Birk said. “All of that kind of calms me down.”
The pain has caused everyday activities to be difficult. She dealt with loss of sleep early on in her diagnosis. She wasn’t able to lift anything mildly heavy at first or sit through a class.
Several physical therapy treatments every week have helped her get somewhat used to it, however. Though there are still times where severe episodes can be debilitating. Still, she consistently remains at what would be considered a high pain level for some, but she now considers mild.
Yet she fights through it to play soccer, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Nobody really knows what you’re dealing with and it’s kind of hard to describe,” Birk said. “Just saying, ‘yeah, I’m in paint constantly but I want to do a contact sport which will trigger my pain.’
“But it’s a sport I love. I can’t remember life without it.”
Birk began playing soccer at a young age, and quickly gained skills and an overall love for it. She competed in club soccer until enrolling at Red Mountain as a freshman and still does so in the offseason. Her current club coach, Vincent Gallegos, is also the head varsity girls’ soccer coach for the Mountain Lions.
Gallegos has recognized Birk’s talent from the club level and has seen how she carried it over to school soccer. He said she has great field vision and awareness and has a unique ability to set her teammates up in good situations.
“She’s technical and has those abilities,” Gallegos said. Her biggest thing is just getting back into it. But as far as vision on the soccer field, she is really good. She’ll know where stuff needs to go, and she will tell other girls that. She’s a field general.”
Gallegos said Birk’s positive attitude and strength to play through her condition is motivational for other girls on the team.
“I don’t think she’s out here to be motivational, but that’s just the energy she gives off,” Gallegos said. “Her strength is something that is heartwarming and motivational. Sometimes, if the other girls are having bad days, they’ll look over and realize they aren’t having that bad of a day.
“Her character is something you want around other players.”
Birk credited her ability to fight through her painful condition and play to the support from both her family and teammates. It’s that same support she thinks will help her continue to improve on the soccer field and ultimately pursue a career as an anesthesiologist.
When she began to feel the constant pain, Birk said doctors hesitated to diagnose her with CRPS. It wasn’t until an anesthesiologist broke the news to her, she officially found out. But the honesty shown by the medical professional carried weight with it, as Birk found a new love for the profession.
Doctors aren’t certain whether Birk will stop experiencing the constant pain. Some dealing with CRPS never heal while others have had it go away on its own. Birk said her young age is seen as an advantage for CRPS to eventually go away, but there’s still no guarantee. In the meantime, she plans to continue chasing her dreams both in the classroom and on the soccer field, and won’t let pain get in the way.
“Personally, I want to make my family proud,” Birk said. “I want them to look at me and say, ‘wow, she’s strong.’ I want to do what I love, and nothing will stop me from doing that.”