Thursday, May 25, 2017

Zaida Morales: Defying Odds to Graduate With Class

Zaida Morales wasn’t supposed to walk across the stage this Saturday. She wasn’t supposed to graduate with her Spring Woods High School classmates. She wasn’t even supposed to be walking at all, not so soon anyway.

None of those things were supposed to happen after the evening of Jan. 29, 2016, when the then-junior’s legs were crushed by a drunk driver and everything changed. Could surgeons save her legs? Would she ever walk again? How long would that be? With what kind of assistance?

We might have to amputate, the surgeon said, but her legs were saved, rebuilt through hours of surgery. You likely won’t walk for two years, she was told, but she was walking without assistance seven months after going home from the hospital.

A member of the Spring Woods High swim team, Zaida was able to compete in a race earlier this year and earn her fourth varsity letter. It was a moment all in itself.

Zaida says that graduation won’t feel real until she’s actually there, sitting with her classmates then walking across the stage.

“Just wearing that cap and gown,” she said, “I’ll likely be the only one bawling my eyes out.”

All due respect, but that’s not likely at all. Zaida has touched a multitude of lives along her journey – doctors, nurses and the staff at Ben Taub Hospital; coaches, teammates and the entire SBISD swim community; principals, counselors and teachers at Spring Woods. Many will be at graduation. They understand the power of the moment.

“Missing the entire second semester of her junior year was the most crushing for Zaida,” said SWHS Swim Coach Emma Knowles. “Missing school, missing her friends – that was her concern, not would (she) walk again.

“She was bound and determined not to miss her senior year.”

SWHS Swim Coach Emma Knowles (right) says senior Zaida Morales is “right where she’s supposed to be.”

A Normal Friday

It was a Friday night like most others, the night of Jan. 29, 2016. Zaida and some friends went to try the tacos at a food truck parked near Kempwood and Blalock, in Spring Branch.

Standing in line, Zaida remembers seeing a black truck enter the parking lot but make no attempt to park. She was wondering what was happening when she heard the truck accelerate and saw the headlights approaching her, “full speed,” she said.

She was somehow able to put her hands on the hood of the truck and jump up a little as it rammed into her, a move that likely saved both her hips and her feet. She was dragged a little ways then fell to the ground.

She remembers lying on the ground, watching the truck backing up and thinking that ‘he’s going to hit me again … I’m going to die’ when a man, a bystander and a stranger, came over and “held me like a baby,” she said.

“He said that everything is going to be OK. Don’t look at your legs,” Zaida said. “I thought ‘why?’ I wasn’t in pain.” She thought her legs were just broken, not crushed and turned in directions that legs aren’t supposed to be turned, one of them stuck in a fence.

That’s when she felt pain. “I screamed, but nothing came out of my mouth.”

Sinking In

She was still in tremendous pain as doctors at Ben Taub Hospital worked with her and her badly mangled legs. She was told that her left leg would likely be amputated, that there was a 5 percent chance of saving it.

“It was like someone splashed ice water on me,” Zaida said. “I remembered how much I loved swimming and dancing. Then I sort of accepted it all, all in the moment. I was OK with it. I had seen active (amputees) on TV. I just wanted to do the things I loved (like swimming and dancing.)”

She remembered the district swim meet the next day and just before blacking out thought, ‘What am I going to tell coach?’

Where’s Zaida?

Swimmers and coaches from across SBISD started gathering early on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, the morning of the district meet and the morning after Zaida’s accident.

SWHS swim coach Knowles noticed that Zaida wasn’t there, then messages started popping up on social media about the accident, with no way of knowing what was true. Knowles and assistant coach Ricardo Bello didn’t know what to believe nor what exactly to do.

They took up team members’ cell phones, contacted then-SWHS principal Jennifer Parker and district athletic director Paige Hershey, who went to work finding Zaida at Ben Taub and setting support mechanisms in motion.

Meanwhile, Knowles and her team went on with the meet. By 4 p.m. the meet was over.

“We pulled everyone together and told them (Zaida) was going to live,” said Knowles. “Then the coaches all went down to the hospital. We heard the whole story … it was horrifying. But through it all, Zaida never passed out.”

At Ben Taub

Zaida awoke after wondering about the district meet and saw her mother.

“I told her I was really sorry (about what happened),” she said. “It must have been the pain. My mom was saying that it wasn’t my fault. She grabbed my face and told me everything was going to be all right.”

Later, when Zaida woke after her first surgery – 13 hours of reconnecting arteries, setting broken bones, reconstructing both knees – she saw metal fixators on both legs, meaning her left leg had indeed been saved.

She spent the next two months at Ben Taub as surgeons repaired damaged tissue, nerves and muscles, 14 surgeries in all. But Zaida had a steady stream of visitors, including her coach and swim team.

“We drove the girls to Ben Taub once a week through March (of that year),” said Knowles. “The hospital staff was so cool with us being there.”

The Stratford swim community got involved, raising money to help the family defray expenses. Stratford mom Tracy Ashworth said that she was struck by Zaida’s absence from the district meet, the day after the accident. “You see an empty lane, you wonder,” she said, learning the following day of Zaida’s accident. The Memorial community made a contribution too.

The staff at Ben Taub was enamored of Zaida as well. A lady from the cafeteria, she said, would put two cups of grapes on her tray because she learned that Zaida loves grapes. And a lady who cleaned her room would kiss her forehead each night before leaving, whispering “good night, princess.”

“I was the youngest in my area of the hospital,” said Zaida. “I was the little sister.”

Back To School

Zaida returned to Spring Woods in August 2017 for her senior year, in a wheelchair, a semester behind –and determined to fix both situations. By early October, Zaida had progressed from wheelchair to walker to crutches to walking on her own, because she wanted to walk on her own like everyone else at school.

She was walking seven months after her release from Ben Taub, nine months after the accident.

SWHS principal Denis Blais marvels not only at her physical recovery but also her academic recovery.

“She missed a whole semester of school,” Blais said. “She couldn’t even do home school. For her to be a candidate for graduation is unbelievable.”

Blais said that Zaida won the Counselor Award at the recent senior awards night.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house – except for her,” he said. “She has that whole attitude of ‘This is who I am … if this is the hardest thing life has to give me, then I got this … life is not going to shake me’.”

In The Water

A few weeks before school started, Knowles said, Zaida showed up at the pool. Zaida’s therapist had said that she could get back in the water.

On Oct. 28, Zaida swam by herself for the first time, two laps of freestyle, her event. Knowles said they had lifeguards and extra people in the water with her.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But it was the coolest thing.”

Knowles had kept Zaida on the swim roster to maintain her eligibility, with Zaida training twice a week after school.

On Jan. 12, in a meet versus Stratford, Zaida swam competitively in the 50-meter freestyle, earning her varsity letter. It was less than a year after the accident.

“She was less than 10 seconds off her personal best time,” Knowles said. “That was the miracle.”

Knowles – and Zaida – said everyone was crying when Zaida got out of the water.

“After I got out of the water I found my mom,” said Zaida. “I looked around and everyone was crying.”

“It was the sweetest way to end it, with that group of girls … and everyone who had supported her, and who she had supported,” said Knowles. “It was an honor that our school and district would let us do that. (Zaida’s) biggest concern had been swimming.”

Return to Normalcy

Zaida had a breakthrough of sorts in October of last year, when her orthopedic surgeon told her that the rods in her legs would stay, that he wouldn’t remove them.

“I said ‘Yes!’” said Zaida. “That meant I was done with surgeries.”

She said she felt even better when that doctor told her that she was a “miracle.” Zaida said that she relied on her faith to help her through the accident and the recovery, and she finds her faith even stronger today. “He’s a man of science,” she said of the doctor, “but he still believes in God and miracles.”

Zaida wants to study for a few years at Houston Community College, then fulfill her dream of traveling by becoming a flight attendant. She might also become a physical therapist.

“I want to help people like they helped me,” she said. “I want to help them walk again, to give them hope, to tell them that you can do it if you really want it. There’s nothing impossible in this life.”

Knowles said that one of Zaida’s doctors told her that the muscle strength that Zaida had built up as a swimmer gave him more to work with when rebuilding her legs. A competitive swimmer herself, Knowles said that she’s now an even bigger fan of swimming as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Knowles likes that Zaida was “rebuilt” with parts from around her body, that the parts from all over help in telling her story.

And she especially likes Zaida’s steely character, the can-do attitude that drove her remarkable recovery and has her graduating with her class this Saturday.

“The work ethic that she showed catching up with her classmates – that’s always been Zaida,” Knowles said. “That’s the part that wasn’t surprising. That’s where she was going in the first place.”

Zaida is happy that, for the most part, things are back to normal. Some people ask about the accident but just as many or more don’t know anything about it. And that’s OK with Zaida.

“Sometimes I don’t want to be the girl in the car accident,” she said. “I just want to be a normal senior.”

by Rusty Graham


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