Hawks freshman shows grit in recovering from stroke

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Avery Marz, a freshman on the Saint Joseph's women's basketball team, goes through an exercise to help her recover from a stroke.

AVERY MARZ is stepping up and then off of an aerobic platform. Her left foot lands on the platform first and her right foot follows. She does this repeatedly as her physical therapist watches. Her mother, Mary Beth Schoellkopf, stands off to the side and watches intently.

Marz, a Saint Joseph's freshman, is wearing a T-shirt from the basketball camp of women's coach Cindy Griffin, a pair of Jordan-brand basketball shorts, athletic shoes and a white headband to keep the sweat from trickling down on her face.

She finishes her repetitions and is instructed to take a break. She catches her breath, smiles and starts to sing and dance to the Bruno Mars song playing in the workout room at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's King of Prussia location.

Her hourlong physical therapy session is just about done; next comes another hour of occupational therapy, where the focus will be on her upper body - which means more brain and coordination activities, as opposed to PT's grind of lower-body motion.

She leads us to the stairs, jokes about the gloomy day outside and continues up two floors where her occupational session will be.

It's just before Christmas, and St. Joe's is about to take a weekend trip to South Bend, Ind., to play nationally ranked Notre Dame, but its star freshman won't be making the trip.

The two-time All-Berks County guard from Wilson West Lawn High is recovering from a late-summer stroke. 

The fall

It was Saturday, Aug. 23, and classes were to start at St. Joe's in 2 days. Marz already had been on campus for 6 weeks, having moved into her room at McShain Hall with fellow freshman and teammate Candace Belvedere.

Schoellkopf had come down to help Marz put the finishing touches on her dorm room before the fall semester began. And thankfully for all parties, she was there the day it happened.

Marz was putting away some clothes when her knee gave out. She then sat on her bed and eventually collapsed to the floor.

"I can't move my arm," Marz told her mom.

Then the left side of her face dropped. Schoellkopf knew exactly what was happening, rushed to the front desk at McShain and asked for help. Paramedics arrived quickly, though when they did, Marz's symptoms had waned. The ambulance driver asked whether she still wanted to go to the hospital, according to Schoellkopf. The answer, of course, was yes.

She was rushed to Lankenau Hospital and was treated for an ischemic stroke, caused by an obstruction of a blood vessel to the brain. Her left side had been affected. She was treated with what is known as a tPA drug, which can dissolve a clot, according to Dr. Rebecca Ichord, pediatric neurologist at CHOP.

"We think it probably did help her," Ichord said of the tPA drug. "You can never know for sure what she would have been like. But we believe that it probably did help her to have a better outcome. It probably improved how quickly the blood flow was restored. It helped prevent a new clot from forming and, overall, that is helpful and important for a better outcome."

Ichord said that four to five children out of 100,000, between the ages of 1 month and 18 years, suffer an ischemic stroke annually.

"It's about as common as a brain tumor," she said.

Marz spent that first night at Lankenau, not knowing exactly what was going on.

"The more that I laid there with my mom - I was on watch; every 10 minutes, they checked my blood pressure - the more I was kind of aware of the fact that I wasn't going to get up tomorrow and move," Marz said. "I was very scared, in the sense of just going to sleep, because I was scared something was going to happen when I was asleep."

The next day Marz was transferred by ambulance to CHOP, where she stayed for 5 days. 

Rehabbing

Upon leaving CHOP, Marz was sent to an inpatient rehab facility in Reading, though the facility was geared toward patients who were much older. After all, Marz is one of the few young people affected by strokes.

She wasn't even allowed to leave her bed without assistance from a nurse, a privilege at CHOP she lost at the new facility. Sometimes she sneaked to the bathroom in her room. But with a nurses stations right outside her room, she would have her mom flush the toilet when she came in the morning to avoid getting in trouble for getting out of bed.

Her 18th birthday was spent there, but her Hawks teammates and coach joined her to celebrate.

"I think it was important," Griffin said of the team visit. "She's part of the team, and we wanted her to know that she's always going to be part of the team, regardless of what happened to her, and know that the support is with her. Whatever needs that she has, we will do what we can to make sure that we provide them for it, whether it be emotional support or whatever it is that we can do for her."

In search of a tougher challenge, geared toward the rehab needs of a Division I athlete and not an elderly person, Marz left the inpatient rehab and started going to CHOP at King of Prussia twice per week. She had seen enough "Friday Night Lights" and "Vampire Diaries" on Netflix at the Reading facility. 

Ahead of schedule

Once settled in at CHOP in November, Marz started working with Ashley Moll, an occupational therapist at CHOP, on coordination-oriented exercises.

At first, these tasks didn't come easily.

Watching Marz struggle with simple tasks early in the rehab process was especially difficult for her mother.

"She has more coordination in one finger than I have in my whole body," Schoellkopf said. "I know it could have been worse; I'm thankful for that."

But Marz has made huge strides. She works out sometimes at home on the elliptical, does in-home coordination exercises and sometimes attends her local YMCA.

While working with Moll, Marz has done exercises that focus on the brain's coordination with her left hand. She's played "Perfection," jumping up, startled, when the board pops out. But she's already put all the pegs in.

One exercise required her to pick up 16 cylindrical blocks with her left hand one-by-one, turn them over and put them back in their holes. When she did this at first, it took her 244 seconds. A month later, she did it in 39 seconds.

Later, she does a drill in which, with her left hand, she grabs small blocks - one at a time - and throws them from one side of a box to another. It's timed for 60 seconds. She does 55 blocks. Moll tells her the average amount of blocks sent from one side of the box to the other by the average person is 55.

"I'm normal!" Marz yells, a bright smile on her face.

"She's a hard worker," Moll said. "She makes improvements every time she comes here, and she's a pleasure to work with, she has a great attitude."

When Marz went to have her standard, 3-month checkup at CHOP, Ichord was pleased with the results.

"I've found this to be the case with accomplished athletes - that they have this determination that, whatever hurdle is put in front of them, they're going to find a way to jump over it," Ichord said.

Ichord, like Moll, was amazed at how upbeat Marz has been through the entire process. On her team at CHOP, Ichord said there was a psychologist, a social worker and an educator - all figuring out the best plan for Marz, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Ichord said Marz's attitude and approach to her rehab may have yielded her positive results.

"That's always been me," Marz said. "I've always been a very upbeat person so I didn't want this stroke, even though it was devastating, I didn't want it to change me. I wanted to still be myself."

Schoellkopf said many people have been struck by her daughter's positivity.

"I think most people who have a stroke - I'm sure, I would be - they're down," she said. "You're depressed, and it sucks and you're angry. Don't get me wrong: There are days when it sucks and she's angry."

Marz wants to use her story and try to help people also affected by a stroke. She's gained perspective on life through her experiences over the last several months.

"I think that everything happens for a reason, and we've come to, every day, try and understand why this has happened and try and just talk to people and let them know it could happen to them," Marz said.

Marz is commemorating the stroke with her first tattoo, with the date of the incident written on her left shoulder blade. Her mother had previously not allowed such a thing, but reconsidered her stance.

"They are permanent," Marz said of tattoos. "It reminds us that life itself is temporary. Luckily, it wasn't my time, that time." 

The road ahead

Marz is back in McShain Hall for the start of spring-semester classes, working toward her double major of communications and sports marketing. She wants to be a sports broadcaster, sharing the dream of many to reach ESPN someday.

For now, she looks forward to having a regular college routine.

"I haven't felt normal in a long time," Marz said. "Everybody talks to me about my stroke, about this. I just want to - not stop talking about it, because I'm going to talk about it for the rest of my life - but just get back to being normal. Going to class, sleeping, doing the normal thing is what I'm most excited for."

The plan, for now, is for Marz to keep rehabbing while attending classes, with the eventual goal of getting back on the court.

Ichord said Marz would absolutely play basketball again, just maybe not to the extent she once could. Griffin said the team simply wants to see Marz happy, and that everyone is taking things month to month.

Marz is taking that approach, as well. She'd love to play again, but right now it's a waiting game.

"I think I'm trying to be positive about it, while also being realistic," Marz said. "I know if I do get the chance to play again, which I want more than anything, it's going to take work. It's not going to be easy, it's not just going to happen. I think facing that reality that it's not an easy thing, it's not a guarantee, some days it's rough. There's a chance I can work really hard and I'm just not going to make it. You don't know.

"Deep down, I know it's what I'm meant to do, and I don't see my life without it."

A woman can dream. This one especially; she's earned as much.

"I have dreams about playing, and I wake up and I'm, like, 'Damn!'

"I'm dunking in my dreams."


On Twitter: @Jeff_Neiburg