Jan 29, 2015
Comeback Athlete: Chrissy Schoonmaker

University of South Carolina

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].

When Chrissy Schoonmaker was named to the 2008 Southeastern Conference All-Defensive Softball Team this spring, it was hard to believe that just 18 months earlier she’d been strapped to a spine board with multiple vertebra fractures. The University of South Carolina fifth-year senior had survived an injury similar to that which felled actor Christopher Reeve, and was finishing her college softball career at the top of her game.

Erin Thomas, MS, ATC, SCAT, Athletic Trainer for softball at the University of South Carolina, says despite enduring all the trials and tribulations that came with a broken neck, Schoonmaker never wavered in her commitment to return to the diamond. “The first thing she told me was that she would come back the next year,” recalls Thomas. “So I wasn’t really surprised when she did–it was more a feeling of amazement and admiration. I don’t think many people could go through what she did and stay so positive and determined. To accomplish what she has is unbelievable.”

Despite the obvious seriousness of the injury, Schoonmaker says she never had any doubts that she would be back. “Lying in the hospital on that first day, I decided that my comeback would start then and there,” she says. “My thoughts were, ‘Okay, I’m taking a little break. But I am going to play again.’

“I had to give myself a positive goal to work toward and I needed something to believe in,” Schoonmaker continues. “It seemed like my world was crashing down around me, so I needed to give myself that distant goal–something to shoot for. That’s what got me through it.”

Schoonmaker’s story began on a sunny morning on I-95 near Daytona Beach, Fla. It was Nov. 26, 2006, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and Schoonmaker and teammate Elly Gosby were driving back to campus from their families’ Florida homes. Schoonmaker navigated her Ford Explorer through heavy post-holiday traffic, chatting with Gosby about school, friends, and the Gamecocks’ upcoming season. Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.

As the highway merged from three lanes into two, traffic came to an abrupt halt, catching Schoonmaker completely off guard. Surprised to see a tractor-trailer sitting stationary in front of her, she yanked the steering wheel to the right to avoid a collision. Veering off the road, the SUV turned sideways, rolling violently four times before coming to rest beside the highway.

After unbuckling, Schoonmaker and Gosby were able to crawl through the crumpled SUV’s windows. The pair was eventually taken by ambulance to the emergency room at Ormond Beach Hospital, where Gosby was treated for a broken wrist and released. Schoonmaker’s situation, however, was much more dire.

An initial CAT scan showed two fractures in the second cervical vertebra, and follow-up tests revealed a third crack. Not equipped to handle such a serious spinal injury, Ormond Beach doctors strapped Schoonmaker to a spine board and transferred her to the trauma unit at nearby Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach.

Despite the cracks in her vertebra, Schoonmaker’s spinal cord was luckily undamaged–she had some minor bruising, but it was structurally sound. It was the best-case scenario in a precarious situation that could have resulted in paralysis or even death. “It was amazing that she was able to walk and had such a high level of body function,” Thomas says.

Because Schoonmaker had movement in her arms and legs, doctors at Halifax chose to install a halo brace that immobilized her head and neck instead of performing surgery. The injury was described as a “Hangman’s fracture,” similar to the type of broken neck caused by a noose in a hanging death. The doctors also told Schoonmaker that softball was not in her immediate future, if at all.

“They had asked me where I was headed and I told them back to USC, where I went to school and played ball,” says Schoonmaker. “I remember them telling me, ‘Not this year, honey. Not for a while you don’t.'”

The news knocked Schoonmaker for a loop. “That’s when I knew it was serious,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘This cannot be happening to me.’

“It was my senior season, and this was going to be our team’s year,” she continues. “The day before I was at home playing catch and running around. A week earlier I was practicing with my team. And now, they were telling me my neck was broken? I was in shock.”

The halo brace, which would be attached to her skull for three months, allowed the bones in her neck to heal. However, the cumbersome three-pound device also made simple day-to-day functions, from getting out of bed to bathing and dressing, the challenges of a lifetime.

After a week at home, Schoonmaker returned to Columbia to resume her fall semester classes. Her mother Debbie also made the trip, staying for two weeks to help her daughter adjust to her new hardware. Schoonmaker says having to give up her independence and continually ask for help was extremely difficult. “It was humbling, but I learned so much from it,” she says. “I had to find new ways to do the simplest things.”

During this initial phase of her recovery, Schoonmaker underwent basic physical therapy for dealing with day-to-day life. “Her rehab included re-learning how to perform basic activities of daily living like standing up, sitting down, and balancing while on her feet,” says Thomas. “She struggled at first with performing even simple tasks like buckling her belt or putting her hair in a pony tail.”

Within the first few weeks, Schoonmaker began taking small steps to slowly improve her conditioning. “She had significant restrictions but she would find a way to work within them,” Thomas says. “In the weightroom, she would do biceps curls, triceps extensions, and calf raises using a five-pound weight and worked toward her goal of walking the stairs in the upper- and lower-level decks of the football stadium 50 times.”

Toward the end of February, Schoonmaker said goodbye to the halo and was fitted for a cervical neck collar, which she wore until late May. Once cleared to remove the collar, she began working with Thomas on gentle strengthening and range of motion exercises for her neck.

“We began with manual exercises in which I moved her neck in flexion, extension, sideways, and rotationally,” says Thomas. “We also did some isometric strengthening for flexion, extension, side bending, and rotation. For example, I had her press her head against my hand for 10 seconds at a time. We did one set of 10 to start and progressed to three sets of 10 in each direction. As her range of motion increased, we would begin to do the exercises at different angles.”

Initially, Schoonmaker’s ROM was very limited, and her neck and upper back muscles had atrophied significantly. After the muscles were activated for the first time in over five months, spasms were a regular occurrence. “I used basic massage to break up and relieve the spasms and to increase muscle elasticity,” Thomas says. “Most of the techniques were effleurage, which incorporated long, smooth strokes; myofascial release to spread the fascia that covers the muscles; and occipital release, which focused on relaxing the fascia that attaches at the base of the skull.”

As more weeks passed, Schoonmaker’s recovery quickened and Thomas progressed to more active assistive ROM and manual resistance muscle strengthening. “We progressed her based on how she was feeling, her level of ROM increase, and how her muscles were responding to the previous day’s rehab,” Thomas says. “However, due to the increased intensity, she experienced headaches from time to time and we would have to back off. Also, her neck was hypersensitive to any manual resistance and ROM increases, so I had to be very careful.” Throughout the process, Team Orthopedic Physician Chris Mazoue, MD, had regular phone conversations with Schoonmaker’s neurologist.

Through it all, Schoonmaker continued to steadily progress, and Thomas says a major asset in the process was the unique bond the two developed. “Her trust in me–literally putting her head in my hands and allowing me to be one of the first people to manually move her head and neck–was key,” Thomas explains. “She was also great at telling me how she was feeling and letting me know when she felt apprehensive, nervous, or excited. Our communication was excellent, and it really helped keep us on the same page.”

All the while, Schoonmaker remained upbeat and was a consistent and helpful presence in the locker room and the dugout. “She was still the heartbeat of the USC softball team,” Thomas says. “She attended every practice, conditioning session, and weightroom workout, and went on every trip with the team during the 2007 season. During games she led cheers and continually offered encouragement, motivation, and inspiration.”

But despite her tough exterior, Schoonmaker was hurting inside. “There were plenty of difficult days,” she says. “One major challenge was watching my team play and knowing that I couldn’t contribute on the field. There were days when it just broke my heart to not be in uniform.

“It was especially tough on Senior Day,” she adds. “McKenna Hughes [the team’s only other senior] had been with me through everything for the previous four years, and all I wanted was to play just one more time with her.”

The prospect of getting back to the diamond and having one more season with her teammates drove Schoonmaker to work even harder. She remained in Columbia over the summer, working with Thomas and taking summer classes toward a B.A. in psychology.

Toward the end of the summer, doctors cleared Schoonmaker to begin more strenuous cardiovascular and strength work. “That’s when we worked her back into the team’s regular routine,” says Thomas. “She could do most of the exercises, but we kept the weight low and restricted her from doing exercises that would have put significant pressure on her neck muscles, like pull-ups and reverse bench presses.”

In the fall, Schoonmaker’s neurologist judged the vertebra fractures to have healed and cleared her to return for the 2008 season. By the time Schoonmaker could begin softball participation, Thomas says the fifth-year senior had worked herself into great cardiovascular shape. “She was in the top three on the team in terms of strength and conditioning,” Thomas says. “All summer, Chrissy was very smart about her workload. Though she was driven to do as much as she could, as fast as she could, she did not push the envelope when it came to her neck.”

At the first preseason practice, Schoonmaker was very excited, and her teammates were abuzz with the return of their co-captain. “She was really nervous and a bit apprehensive at first, like she was a freshman all over again,” Thomas says. “For instance, she was a little reluctant to dive for ground balls right away. But after getting through that first dive in practice, she was fine.”

Schoonmaker wasn’t the only one with concerns during those early practices. Her athletic trainer was also going through a gamut of emotions. “Nervous, scared, excited, hopeful–I was feeling everything when she took the field those first few times,” Thomas says.

Before Schoonmaker ever set foot on the infield dirt, Thomas had mentally gone through every imaginable emergency scenario. “I made sure that all our athletic training students knew their role if we needed to activate her emergency action plan and that our team physicians knew about her first day back at practice,” she says. “I also made sure my supervisor was close to her phone during those first few weeks. Fortunately, I didn’t need to fall back on any of those plans.”

Throughout the season, Schoonmaker worked with the team’s strength and conditioning coach on basic strength-building workouts for her shoulders and neck. She also continued her pre-workout stretching program and received massage on a regular basis.

Schoonmaker’s hard work was rewarded with an SEC All-Defensive Team honor for her prowess at second base. During the season, she committed just two errors and was the ultimate team player, appearing in 32 games and spending time at five different positions. She also continued working toward a master’s degree in mass communication and journalism.

Schoonmaker credits a lot of her 2008 on-field success to the time she spent on the bench in 2007. “Even though I wasn’t playing, I was still learning,” she says. “The sidelines provide a very different perspective, and I saw things in the game I never would have seen had I been playing. So although my accident was a setback, it contributed to my mental preparedness, which is my greatest asset as a player.”

More importantly, says Schoonmaker, the accident also put her life into perspective. “I always think of how fortunate I am to be able to walk, let alone live a normal life again,” she says. “I have learned so much from this experience. I appreciate the simplest things. I am a better person because of what I have been through. I really do love my life, and I am able to see now that there really is a blessing in this whole thing.

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