Daisy Dufour wanted to have the normal teenage life: go to school, spend time with her friends, play a varsity sport and simply enjoy all the other aspects of her life.
Through most of her freshman year at Shelton High, Dufour followed that plan. But most of her sophomore year was nothing short of a nightmare.
It was late May 2014, right near the end of her freshman year. Dufour began to experience nausea and vomiting. That continued throughout the summer. The vomiting increased.
At first, both Daisy and her mother, Laura Lenhard, thought it may have something to do with her conditioning exercises in preparation for the fall soccer season. But Lenhard said Dufour was vomiting up to 15 times per day. On one particular day, Dufour says she threw up 50 times.
“In the beginning, I remember feeling so sick and exhausted all the time,” Dufour said. “The constant throwing up created a burning in my throat. I was never too scared, but more aggravated that no one could figure out what was wrong. I definitely had that ‘Why me?’ attitude.”
Dufour started her sophomore year at Shelton, but it became too much to bear. She checked into Hartford Hospital in mid-September. A battery of tests over a 15-day stay still didn’t shed any light on Dufour’s situation.
The 130-pound Dufour was down to 98 pounds. She was getting tutored at home and attending school only in the afternoon. Her sophomore soccer season was over.
“I would be in class and start gagging and throw up. I had no control over body,” Dufour said. “I learned what to eat, when to eat and learned to live with it. I ate just portion sizes, maybe 500 calories a day.”
Dufour said she liked the way her mom made French toast, “because it would go down pretty easy.” But even with the small portions, she didn’t like to even be around food.
“It was horrifying to watch my kid go from 130 pounds and a healthy athlete all her life and watch her drop a pound every other day,” Lenhard said. “She was vomiting food out of her mouth and couldn’t even keep down liquid.”
Dufour made several trips to Yale-New Haven Hospital last fall. Bulimia and anorexia were ruled out, but the diagnosis was still a mystery.
“A mixture of every anti-nausea medicine she took resulted in her getting sicker,” Lenhard said. “Yale tried to rule things out and tried to find a medication to calm her stomach down and let her eat.”
It wasn’t until several visits to Dr. Susannah Tung, a psychiatrist located in Westport who was brought in as a consultant beginning in late November, that Dufour began to show signs of improvement. Tung said she diagnosed Dufour with intractable nausea and vomiting, along with both somatic disorder (feeling physical symptoms that can result in disruption of a normal routine) and adjustment disorder (a group of symptoms, like stress, that could occur after a stressful life event) with anxiety and depressed mood.
Tung prescribed two medications. The first was Marinol, a synthetic cannabinoid which treats or prevents nausea and vomiting. She also prescribed Bupropion, an antidepressant medication.
“The poor thing couldn’t keep anything down,” Tung said. “She had bad reactions to almost all the medicines she was put on previously.”
It took some time, but Dufour said in March she eventually got back some of her appetite and was able to keep food down. She still can’t eat three square meals a day — she tries to eat seven or eight small meals.
“She thanked me and told me (Bupropion) was ‘like a miracle medicine’ for her,” Tung said.
Dufour says her teachers have been good about letting her eat snacks like a granola bar or graham crackers. Dufour now weighs 112 pounds and says she eats about 1,000 calories per day.
She returned full time to Shelton at the beginning of the 2015-16 academic year.
“Looking back, it was so bad, it doesn’t seem realistic. It was so scary and so bad. I’m getting better and stronger every day,” said Dufour, who said she still takes Bupropion, but not Marinol.
After getting her condition somewhat under control, the next step was returning to soccer. She played premier soccer in the winter and slowly built up her minutes into the spring while still dealing with the nausea. Then she had to go through conditioning for the high school season in late August.
“We do physical assessments in our tryouts and she was pretty solid in those,” Shelton coach Marvin Miller said. “She handled all those challenges pretty well. She asked for nothing to be compensated for, no kind of breaks. She made no allowances for her illness.”
Dufour had been a goalkeeper throughout her career, but the standing around was not good for her. She needed to be in motion, so she moved to midfield and now plays forward for both the varsity and JV squads.
The hope of getting back to playing consistent minutes and making an impact was therapeutic for Dufour. Going to games last fall, when she was healthy enough to attend, and sitting on the bench was agonizing.
“Soccer is my passion. It’s what got me through all of this; and my friends,” Dufour said. “I really love soccer more than anything. … For two hours, I can clear my mind. I had a lot of anger, a lot of ‘Why me?’ Soccer helped with that resentment a lot. It was the best therapy.”
Dufour leads the JV team in scoring. Miller said they moved her out of the midfield and she is “ruthless and relentless” as a forward and is now playing over 20 minutes a game at the varsity level, where she is still looking for her first goal.
“She is in good physical shape, one of the most committed, hardest-working players day in and day out, like she is trying to make up for last year,” Miller said. “She is very driven. For me, she has been very inspiring to watch her come back from all this.”
Dufour continues to improve health-wise. She still has her bad days — on Oct. 6 she threw up multiple times — but the vomiting normally happens about once a week now.
This experience has been the catalyst for Dufour’s desire to be a psychiatrist. Tung is helping with her college résumé as Dufour looks at potential Division III schools where she can play soccer and get a degree in psychology before pursuing medical school.
All Dufour wants is a healthy, normal life that includes playing her favorite sport.
“I wouldn’t feel the need to throw up and I never wanted to throw up. All I wanted to do was play soccer,” Dufour said. “I still do push myself a lot. I demand only the best for myself. Sometimes, I still get sick on the field and I say to myself, ‘This used to be 24/7.’ Sometimes, I really don’t know how I got through it. I literally came from hitting rock bottom and built myself back up from where getting out of bed was an accomplishment.
“It’s still not easy now. I still feel tired. I get jealous when I see people eat a lot. I still have ways to go, but I’m still proud of myself.”