Living

Budding actress embraces hard work

Former Duke soccer player Christie McDonald understands she could have chosen an easier career path than trying to become an actress in Hollywood.

When she enrolled at Duke in 2005, McDonald easily could have majored in economics or biology and wound up on Wall Street or in scientific research. Instead, with a double-major in English and theatre studies, she is waitressing at two restaurants in Sun Valley, Idaho.

But McDonald knows there are harder things in life than trying to make ends meet on skimpy tips, a lesson that has served her well in a daunting profession.

In a span of three months after her freshman year, McDonald went from being unable to walk because of surgery for a brain tumor to being the most physically fit athlete on the Duke women's soccer team. Doctors did not expect her to have a sense of balance the rest of her life, let alone play soccer for a Division I team.

On May 12, 2006, after four hours of surgery to remove the 1.5-centimeter benign brain tumor, about the size of one large M&M, McDonald understood she would struggle mightily before she even approached her former condition. The first time she took a shower after her surgery, she was so exhausted she had to take a four-hour nap.

Her problems first emerged when she experienced foot tremblings and dizzy spells during her freshman year at Duke. Team physician Allison Toth recommended she get an MRI to check for brain lesions in April 2006.

"I didn't give it a second thought," McDonald said. "There was nothing where I said, 'Something is definitely wrong.' "

She couldn't ignore the possibility that something was wrong when her phone rang at 7:30 a.m. the Monday after her exam. The team's head trainer, Elizabeth Zannolli, picked her up from her dorm and told her the results -- she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Zannolli told her the tumor was not cancerous, but it didn't help matters. One of McDonald's childhood friends, Jessica Wilson, had a similar benign tumor in fifth grade, and she died two years later.

After some tears were shed, McDonald decided to fight the tumor with a hardened, unyielding attitude. McDonald and her parents, Lisa and Andy, chose Dr. Derald Brackmann, a specialist in Los Angeles in acoustic neuroma -- the official diagnosis of McDonald's tumor -- to perform the surgery. Her tumor, had it not been treated when it was, could have grown large enough to press on her brain stem and become life-threatening.

During surgery, Brackmann noted the tumor had pressed against McDonald's auditory, balance and facial nerves. She avoided facial paralysis but lost hearing in her left ear and a sense of balance because those nerves were removed.

It took a day and a half for McDonald to open her eyes without her world spinning, and then a month and a half to learn how to walk again. But with a desire to play soccer again, McDonald returned to Duke for summer school and rehabbed with Zanolli on a daily basis for several hours at a time.

"Anytime she was told to come, she came, whether it was 6 a.m. or 10 p.m., and she'd stay after for more," Zanolli said. "I've never seen a student-athlete with as much work ethic as she had."

Much to the surprise of everyone, McDonald joined the team for the first day of soccer practice. Even more shocking, however, was that she not only passed the physical exams but topped the charts on every test.

McDonald missed only three games over the next three years for Duke, helping the Blue Devils to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament in her junior and senior campaigns and guiding the defense to a record-tying 13 shutouts this past fall. She developed a fearless attitude that enabled her to attempt things she never would have done before -- including acting.

"I look back on the experience fondly -- it was the best thing to happen to me, and I'm very thankful," McDonald said. "I don't know if I would've pursued acting without this experience."

She said she always wanted to act but got too embarrassed performing in front of people. After taking an introductory acting class with Jeff Storer, a professor at Duke, she caught "the acting bug" and entered a university acting program in Italy last summer.

"After that time period, I decided, 'Yes, I love acting and I want to do this,' " McDonald said. "All my senior classes revolved around acting. It was hard for me to say out loud to people. It's scary because it is a difficult profession to make it in."

Once she moved to Sun Valley, she began taking more acting classes in Hailey, Idaho, and making connections with the local acting groups. Actors Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, for example, have residences in Hailey.

She will move to Los Angeles the weekend after Labor Day.

She said she has learned four monologues in preparation for auditions and has compiled headshots and résumés to send to agencies in Los Angeles. Although she performed in only one play at Duke, "Exit the King," she said little can prepare someone for Hollywood.

"It's one of those things where you can't do much until you get there," McDonald said. "I don't know how it's going to end up. I might decide to do theater instead [of film], but it's exciting."

Storer said she has a strong physical presence that, as long as she continues to fine-tune her vocal skills, she will eventually have a breakthrough. He said he had no doubt McDonald would get noticed in the acting world, calling her "a remarkable woman" who possessed all the qualities necessary to succeed in acting.

Because if she can learn how to walk again, learning how to land an acting role will be one of the easier things she's done.

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