Suzie Smith: Broken spine, unbroken spirit

“That’s all for our Panther Tale announcements. I’m Suzie Smith and have a terrific Thursday, Panthers!” Most of the student body recognizes senior class president Suzie Smith’s cheery voice from the daily announcements at the start of every second period class. However, most don’t know that she was an Olympic-scouted, all-star soccer player before her dreams were crushed by an injury at the age of thirteen.

Suzie started playing soccer on one club team when she was four, and worked her way to being a member of four club teams by the age of nine. “In middle school, soccer was pretty much how I defined myself … Soccer was it for me. I had no interests in anything. Soccer was the only thing I cared about,” Suzie said.

After years of dreaming and intense practice, 13-year-old Suzie could never have prepared for what was going to happen next. “I was playing at an indoor soccer tournament and I dove for the ball when I was in the goal. I kind of felt this weird pain, but it didn’t phase me much,” Suzie said. “I got up and kept playing and after twenty minutes, a huge surge of pain rushed over me and everything went black.” Suzie had passed out on the spot. When she woke up, she was in the Emergency Room being wheeled in for an MRI.

After her MRI, Suzie discovered she had multiple back diseases, including Degenerative Disc disease, spondylosis, scoliosis, lordosis, and had broken her L4-L5 disc bilaterally. “They told me I’m probably never going to run again, never going to play a sport again. My best hope was to go home, recover, and not gain a ton of weight,” Suzie said.

“She had no fear and would do whatever it took to keep that ball out of the goal,” Sally Smith, Suzie’s mom, said. “Unfortunately, she broke her spine that way.”

After returning home, Suzie spent days in a back brace, unable to walk. “I put on weight really fast in a week, because I went from 40 hours of activity to none,” Suzie said.

In these first few days after her MRI, Suzie received a phone call that would simultaneously make and break her dreams. The U.S. Women’s National Team, after scouting Suzie at her national tournament, wanted Suzie to play for the United States in the upcoming Olympics. However, Suzie was forced to decline. “That was heartbreaking … everything (was) taken away from me,” Suzie said.

In addition, Suzie spent the following months in a wheelchair on constant medication. “She learned to knit and crochet – although she wasn’t very good at that, and she had to sit around a lot,” Sally said. “This was really hard for her because Suzie never sat around.”

Even attending one hour of school was exhausting, to the point that Suzie passed out during class and had to be wheeled out. “That was extremely embarrassing for someone like me because I don’t like people pinning me as weak. That’s why I usually don’t tell people what happened. It hurt so badly, both physically and mentally, that I just didn’t want to talk about it and have people define me as the person who used to play soccer,” Suzie said.

Moving forward, Suzie didn’t let the doctors’ words discourage her. After five months of being in a wheelchair, Suzie went to physical therapy daily. “I worked really, really hard and the exercises I did were embarrassingly easy, but for me they were so hard,” Suzie said. “I worked, worked, worked … finally, I started slowly getting to the gym. After a year and a half, I was slowly jogging.”

Following her efforts to practice small exercises, Suzie was finally introduced back into the world of sports after her mom asked her if she wanted to try it during her freshman year.“I did and it was actually one of the best things that’s happened to me. I mean, I don’t love water polo, but I was able to play mostly pain free because the pressure in the water took it away,” Suzie said.

Suzie’s progress hasn’t gone unnoticed by her water polo teammates. Jordan Jomsky, sophomore and varsity water polo player, looks up to Suzie and admires her hard work as both a person and an athlete. “She’s such a good water polo player and a really positive person to be around,” Jomsky said. “It’s amazing to see how much she has recovered.”

While she has beat the doctors’ odds, Suzie considers herself to still be in recovery. However, she does acknowledge how far she has come both physically and mentally. “My back still hurts every day. I pretty much live on Ibuprofen and I heat my back every night,” Suzie said. “As a result of my back injury, I went through a ton of depression. A side effect is a disease that affects my nerves and arms, causing them to itch. I used to scratch myself to point of bleeding and I’d just have to sit there in horrible pain. It was the worst thing ever. Now, I’m slowly starting to overcome it. My depression medication is at a low dosage and I’m not scratching anymore … so I’m very happy.”

After soccer was out of the picture, Suzie had more time to discover her other passions, including leadership. “I realized that my injury was so miniscule to everything out there so I got into helping people and suicide prevention. The amount of pain that I went through really influenced me to get into leadership,” Suzie said.

Suzie is graduating in June and plans to pursue a degree in business management at the University of Kansas. There, she hopes to continue exercising and join more sports teams. “My doctors told me I could play recreational soccer in college. I can’t play in the goal, but I can play on the field … sort of … maybe for a fourth of the game,” Suzie said.

“I love working with people and I like being large and in charge,” Suzie said. “So between the combination of those two, hopefully I figure something out, but who knows what will happen?”

 

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