In the latest edition of the National Hemophilia Foundation’s Playing It Safe: Bleeding Disorders, Sports and Exercise guide, lacrosse is listed as one of the highest-risk activities for people with bleeding disorders.
“Lacrosse is fast-paced and can include body checking and stick checking,” the guide cautions. “Injuries occur frequently and can be serious. Common injuries are concussions, sprains and strains. There is potential for serious traumatic injury to the head, eye, neck, spine and extremities.”
Thus it comes as a bit of a surprise to find that one of the players for the top 10-ranked NCAA Division I Syracuse University Orange men’s lacrosse team, Mikey Berkman, has severe hemophilia A. But 20-year-old Mikey says his bleeding disorder wasn’t the biggest obstacle he faced in achieving his childhood dream.
Mikey grew up in Windermere, Florida, near Orlando. When he was little, he and his family went through a familiar litany of hemophilia-related trials and tribulations: surgery for two ports, port infections, joint bleeds and lots of trips to the emergency room for treatment. His father, Mike Berkman, recalls that Mikey started prophylaxis around age 8 and began self-infusing at 13. “Even after removing the port, we had to run to the hospital if we couldn’t find a vein,” Mike says. “The people that knew Mikey prior to prophylaxis saw how this disease can take control of your life.” The learning curve was steep, but the Berkmans were determined students.
Mike was the one who initially suggested lacrosse to his high-energy son who loved contact sports. The Berkmans have a history in the game. Mike and his brother played in college, and Mike coached high school lacrosse. In fourth grade, Mikey started tagging along with his dad, catching the lacrosse bug. “At the level he started, there’s not much dangerous contact. We just didn’t think he would fall for it the way he did,” Mike says.
Despite being nervous as Mikey continued playing and the sport got more aggressive, Mike and his wife, Kathy, took it one week at a time, focusing on staying on top of Mikey’s prophylaxis schedule to help keep him safe. “It’s important to understand that we had a lot of years learning and getting to know his body,” Kathy says. She also stresses how essential it is for Mikey to follow his treatment. “One week without factor even without lacrosse would probably have him unable to walk, let alone run or play. I can only stress that doing factor at home before the bleeds occur is the game changer.”
“I give all the credit to my parents, because they could’ve easily shut it down before I even started,” Mikey says.
Thanks to medical advances, the biggest barrier to Mikey’s dream of playing at the highest level was the same as for any other Division I hopeful: stiff competition. According to the NCAA, only 3% of the more than 113,000 high school lacrosse players nationwide go on to play in Division I. Mikey ended his high school career as Florida’s all-time leader in points and assists, earning several awards. But winning a spot at Syracuse was still no easy feat for a kid from Florida. “Getting into a DI school is kind of rare,” he says. “Roughly 80% of the kids who play lacrosse are from the Northeast. So that was my main concern: Can I even get a look?”
As an athlete with a bleeding disorder playing a contact sport, Mikey has always had an extra layer of responsibility for his physical safety. He credits Fran Haynes, executive director of the Hemophilia Foundation of Greater Florida, with encouraging him to attend chapter events that educated him about his hemophilia and how to keep it from holding him back. “Fran always helped me so much. Back when I was little, my parents weren’t as sure about lacrosse because they were worried. She would just help reassure them,” says Mikey, who received a college scholarship from the chapter.
Mikey arrived at Syracuse in August 2018 ready to make his mark. But as a freshman on a team stocked with experienced talent, he was redshirted. (Redshirt players practice and train with the team but sit out all competition for the academic year.) His hemophilia wasn’t the reason for the decision. “It was a big adjustment at first—all the game IQ, the mental part of the game, learning all the techniques I’d never been coached on,” Mikey says. “I knew I wasn’t going to start or play because we have a really deep team.”
Having grown up in the era of prophylaxis, Mikey, like many college-age students with a bleeding disorder, admits that at times he underappreciated the risks of his condition. Daily lacrosse practices meant Mikey had an increased risk of bleeds, so he switched from taking factor every three days to every other day.
Mikey relied on the lacrosse team’s associate athletic trainer, Troy Gerlt, MS, ATC, to help him stay on top of the accelerated factor schedule. “He was awesome in helping me. If I don’t text him ‘I did my factor,’ I’ll be warming up for practice and he’ll just grab me and say, ‘You’re not playing,’” says Mikey, who had to sit out a practice or two as a result. Mikey now has an alarm on his smartphone to remind him to take his medication.
“While Mikey played lacrosse throughout high school, collegiate lacrosse at the Division I level is much more demanding and strenuous, both physically and mentally,” Gerlt says. “It took some time for Mikey to understand and embrace that tracking his regular injections would decrease the likelihood of any serious event as a result of his bleeding disorder. By the end of the school year, he appreciated the rationale of why I was so adamant about maintaining a schedule, and he was committed to taking his factor regularly.”
Mikey quickly learned that maintaining a regular routine was necessary to manage his health and various commitments. “I started waking up at the same time every day, and I try to go to bed at the same time every day,” he says. “I get up and go to practice. I get my classes out of the way. After that, I have homework. If I didn’t have a routine, I would always be scrambling.”
To the next generation of sports-crazed kids with bleeding disorders, Mikey has these words of wisdom: “Just because a challenge was thrown at you that you couldn’t control, don’t let it be the thing that makes you unhappy. Figure out a way to make it all work and devote effort into that. It would’ve been pretty easy for me to say, ‘Nah, it’s just too risky.’ There definitely were some hard times. You’re still going to have bleeds every once in a while, but as long as you take care of yourself, it can be possible.”