Catching hope: High school softball player uses gratitude to deal with paralysis

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 21 2012 8:15 p.m. MST

Samantha Guillory, shown at University Hospital in Salt Lake City in September with her mother, Jill, is adjusting to life back home again.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

NEPHI — Jill Guillory heard the words the doctor spoke, but she couldn't accept what they meant.

"She'll have a horrible life," Guillory recalled the doctor say in the hours after her 17-year-old daughter was involved in a car accident that broke two vertebrae in her neck. "And so will you. What kind of life is it if you can't move?"

The mother of six covered her ears and wept for the life her athletic, independent, tough little girl lost in a matter of minutes.

"I couldn't listen," she said through tears. "I was going to throw up. I thought I'd die. And then she comes out of surgery and lifts up her arms. It was just a lot of very interesting things going on; I'm not sure what I felt. Hope — I guess that's what it is — hope."

Born to play

Sam Guillory was born a natural athlete. She was built for power, with the kind of mental toughness that makes for success. Her mom giggles and grins through tears when she recalls how doctors marveled at the newborn's strength.

Fiercely independent, naturally adventurous and athletically gifted, Sam found her purpose on the softball field.

"She's got a heck of a gun," said Juab High softball coach Alley Gee when asked to describe Guillory's softball skills. "And she can hit. Oh, can she hit. She knows the game; she's just smart."

Gee summed Sam up in one word — stubborn. And that's a compliment, the coach clarifies.

"A determined girl with an attitude and very, very athletic," said Gee, smiling. "Things come very easy for her. She's a great, great player."

All summer, Bob and Jill Guillory and Sam's five siblings enjoyed watching the 17-year-old play the game she loved. The coach of the accelerated team told Jill that her daughter was not only good enough to play in college, but that she was capable of earning a scholarship.

"She was just amazing," said her married older sister Mariah Matesen. "I loved watching her. She's so good and she worked so hard to be good."

More than just about anything, Sam said she loved being behind the plate. It was the prefect combination of power and pressure for a girl who loves being in the middle of the action but shies away from attention.

"It's scary because you don't want to miss any balls," said Sam as she tried to clear the mucus from her throat, an act made infinitely more difficult because swallowing is now a challenge. "But it's cool at the same time, because you can see the whole field. You can see everything that's going on."

Sam and her mom Jill try to remember when and why she began playing sports — volleyball, softball and basketball — but it was difficult to remember those first moments because the games have always been part of her.

"Anything with a ball," said Jill, laughing. "If there was a sport, she was in; but softball was her favorite."

Her mom has decorated her hospital room at the University of Utah with pictures of Sam in her catcher's gear. It might seem that seeing what she was just a few weeks ago would be too painful. But it is the hope of being that again that keeps her from sinking into despair.

Sports aren't just an outlet for Sam Guillory. It's who she is. Life without athletics of some kind doesn't seem to be an option.

"It's definitely kept me in shape," said Sam, as she struggles again to clear her throat so she can express herself completely. "Sports is everything. That's where I met my friends; that's where my friends are today. Softball is just the best. I think it's definitely made me — me."

But while Sam Guillory was a delight to watch on the softball diamond, it was her inner strength that always impressed those who knew her best. Her uncle once told Jill that what he admired most about Sam was how at ease she was in her own life.

"Sam is comfortable in her own skin," said her mom. "She doesn't wish she was someone else."

Not even now that her body had betrayed her.

The accident

It was the sentence every parent fears hearing.

"I was leaving Young Women's and my husband drives up and said, 'Jill, there has been a car wreck,' " she said, emotion forcing her to stop the story. "I said, 'Call her phone!' I called it, and her friend answered. I said Erin, 'Where is Sam?' And I could hear Sam say, 'Am I paralyzed?' "

The tears choke her voice again. She tries in vain to stop them. She apologizes. She laughs, and then continues, "You're a mom. You know. I was just sick."

Sam's memory of the accident is a mixture of what she sees in her mind and what others tell her. She remembers driving home from a volleyball game on Aug. 14 with three friends, all of whom were wearing seat belts, and driving on the highway thunder strip that's meant to warn — albeit rather abruptly — drivers who have strayed off the road and onto the shoulder.

"I remember seeing the sign that said 26 miles to Nephi," she said. "I guess I over-corrected and that's when the car kind of rolled."

The Ford Focus rolled multiple times off the road. The car stopped, and her friends, mostly uninjured except one who needed stitches, called for help.

"I blacked out," Guillory said. Her first memory is hearing the voice of her best friend's father, Mike Tischner, who is a police officer.

"I remember they were putting me in the ambulance, and I was like, 'Don't leave me, Mike,' " she said softly.

She was taken to the hospital in Nephi, which is where her parents first saw her. Her memory is hazy; her parents' painful.

"It's weird because I felt like my eyes were closed all the time and I was really tired," she said. "When I got to the hospital, I remember I told someone I was hurting. But I don't remember hurting."

The combination of trauma and the pain medicine force Sam to rely on her friends and family when she tries to fit the pieces of that night back together. She and her mom still laugh about the handsome doctor she saw in the hallway before surgery.

"I thought his name was Tim," she said, smiling. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, he's cute.' "

But when she asked nurses about him later, they said the only Tim they knew was an elderly pharmacist.

"I guess I imagined him," she said, making everyone in the room laugh.

While Sam was flown from Nephi to UVU for surgery that fused her damaged vertebrae (C5, C6, and C7) together, her parents drove. When her mom arrived, Sam was in a halo that screwed into her head and kept her neck immobile. She shouted a question at her mom as her parents entered the room.

"She said, 'Mom, did the Yankees win?' " Jill laughingly recalled.

Sam said she remembers a doctor talking to her about her injuries briefly.

"He said, 'Your legs don't work.' " When asked if she would ever walk again, he continued, "You never know; everyone's different." Sam said, "That kept my mind off of it." And she still holds onto hope, even while she struggles with the reality of paralysis.

Asked whether she believes she'll regain use of her legs, she said, "Why not? It could turn out that way, I guess. Sometimes it feels like I'm moving, but I'm not."

She doesn't spend a lot of time mourning.

"She has bad moments, but not bad days," said her mom. Three weeks after the accident, she struggled to swallow and taste food that she used to love and longed for the day she could brush her own teeth.

But in those first weeks, Sam cried just one time, and that was in the hospital in Nephi immediately after the crash when her softball coach stood at her bedside.

Gee, who is also an assistant volleyball coach, heard about Sam's accident and immediately drove to the hospital.

"They told her Mama G is here, but they wouldn't let me in because I'm not family," Gee said. But then someone else who knew them both brokered a meeting in which Sam cried for the first time.

"She (Sam) said, 'Mama G, I just want to walk again; I want to play softball; I want to win a state championship and do all of the things we talked about as a team.' I said, 'We'll get there, Sam. You take care of yourself right now, and then we'll see,' " Gee said.

Gee can't imagine a softball season without her.

"She will be greatly missed," said Gee, tears shimmering in her eyes. "I'm hoping she can come back … but if I can at least keep her in the dugout, I'll have her calling my pitches."

It isn't just the coach who can't imagine a softball season without number 20 behind the plate. Erin Hansen, who plays shortstop for the team and was with Guillory in the crash, said it doesn't seem possible that Sam might not be able to play.

"She is the teammate," Hansen said. "If Sam isn't in a good mood, nobody is. Sam's pretty much our leader. We have to have Sam. Without her, we can't do it because she's the one who picks us up and helps us keep going."

Grief and gratitude

In the days after Sam's accident, the Guillory family was inundated with calls and visits expressing support and offering help. The family, known for leading the charge to help others, now struggled with accepting that same help.

At a 5k fundraiser, Jill couldn't walk more than a few steps without someone stopping her to offer a hug, words of encouragement and a few dollars. She let the tears flow freely as she filled them in on Sam's progress and thanked them for their thoughts and prayers.

The support is both sustaining and debilitating. It reaffirms her faith, while testing her ability to receive the kind of love she's been so willing to give.

"It's humiliating," she said, the sobs choking off her thoughts. "But it's not about me. It's about Sam. And it's so wonderful. We're so grateful."

And they need help.

They need financial help, despite having good health insurance. They need physical help with chores, remodeling and daily activities, and maybe most of all they need spiritual help, offered to them in the form of hugs, handshakes and countless prayers.

The naturally upbeat, outgoing woman admits she let herself go to the dark place once in the early weeks after Sam's accident.

"I did ask (God) why," she said, sinking into sadness briefly. "Because she can do it … I have a lot of faith. It's not even just the Mormon thing. It's God. And he loves us. And I can physically feel that. Sam can feel it. That's truly what saves me."

In the days after the accident, Sam told her friends she couldn't bear it if they organized a fundraiser for her family. Five weeks after that declaration, the friends did it anyway. With the help of Sam's sisters, more than 500 people showed up to run 3.2 miles in a T-shirt with Sam's number on the back.

"I've just been blown away by the support of our community," said her sister Mariah. "They've been awesome."

The race was just one moment, but it touched Jill in a unique way — running, and her running friends, have been her salvation in some of life's tough times. The sport brought the women together, but their support of each other made them friends.

The 5K fundraiser was one beautiful, huge blast of love that ended with a cookout and silent auction, all in Sam's honor and for her benefit.

While the costs associated with an injury like Sam's are staggering, even with health insurance, the town of Nephi has made the family's battle their own. They remodeled her bedroom and bathroom so it's wheelchair accessible and organized fundraisers from a Zumba class to a high school dance.

Home sweet home

Sam's goal in the hospital was to work as hard as she could so she could leave in a wheelchair that was at least partially powered by her. She achieved that goal, and she returned home to a heartfelt welcome from friends who've proven they can be as loyal to Sam as she was to them.

They visit often and they include her in their activities.

But everyday there are remnants of what she's lost, mixed with reminders of what she's found. It is difficult, especially at 17, to be so dependent — so different.

"Home is real," said Jill a few days before Thanksgiving. "Being up at the hospital she knew she was lucky. At home she feels like she can't do anything."

She doesn't want pity, and some days she wishes she didn't need so much help.

"She loves her bathroom, but she misses her basement," Jill said. She called it the hole, and she really misses it." There is a lot to miss from that life she lost. And there are moments that Sam and Jill weep for what they've all lost, how life has changed. But then they feel the affection of a community that refuses to let them walk this path alone, and they focus the battle to what's right in front of them.

After all, Jill points out, this is a girl that doctors didn't think would move at all. Now she moves her arms, her hands, and has some feeling in her lower body. She even threw a softball 20 feet a week ago.

"Samantha is not in denial," said Jill after a particularly challenging morning three weeks ago. "She is absolutely aware. None of us know where she's going. The doctors don't know."

Which is why Sam is keeping her options open.

"It's surreal, I guess, being told that you're paralyzed," she said, admitting it is hard not to mourn what she's lost. "I could get frustrated easy. When I got a card and I tried to hold it and I couldn't, I just cried forever. My mom said, 'You will be OK.' I guess this is just what I'm supposed to be doing right now, a trial I have to go through. I just try to think about what I can still do. Like getting into a normal wheelchair."

She acknowledged in the early weeks of her recovery that she knew the battles would get harder before they would get easier. But she and her family revel in the small, daily victories because they know they'll lead someplace awesome.

"She can taste again," Jill laughs. "She cracks me up with all the things we have to eat now. Considering what she's been through, she'd doing marvelous. Her attitude would blow you away."

Sam had a significant victory last week when she was able to transfer in and out of her wheelchair unassisted — a feat once deemed impossible for her to even consider.

"I told her once you can transfer yourself, your life is yours," Jill said. "You can go anywhere. It's huge."

"Sam doesn't think her life is over. It's not, 'Poor me.' She's still funny; she's still fun. She's still Sam."

Twitter: adonsports

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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