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Former swimmer writes book about miracle comeback

Bill Brink | Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It took Haley Scott DeMaria three tries, but she finally wrote and published the story of an event that changed her life.

Scott DeMaria was a freshman swimmer at Notre Dame in 1992. On Jan. 24, she was on the team bus coming back from a meet against Northwestern. Driving through a blinding blizzard, the bus was four miles from campus when it hit a patch of ice, skidded and flipped off the Toll Road.

Scott DeMaria suffered three crushed vertebrae and was paralyzed by the time she reached the hospital. Two other freshmen, Meghan Beeler and Colleen Hipp, died in the crash.

Scott DeMaria’s life after the crash is an inspiration to accident victims, their family members or anyone who’s ever had a goal in life.

Her book about the accident, “What Though The Odds – Haley Scott’s Journey of Faith and Triumph,” came out this June, following two previous attempts to write it. Scott DeMaria said she’s in a place now where she can tell the story.

“What I’ve realized is that I needed to be at a very healthy and stable point in my life to go back and relive a very unhealthy and unstable part of my life,” said Scott DeMaria, who was on campus this weekend for a book signing.

Usually, she said, the men and women traveled together to meets, but this was the first occasion where the women traveled by themselves. The team lost, but swam well, Scott DeMaria, a Phoenix native, said, and was excited to contend with such a good team.

Next thing she knew the bus was upside down in a ditch next to the road, and Scott DeMaria was on her back in the snow.

Scott DeMaria had two operations that night. She said doctors looked for any signs of hope that she may regain feeling in her legs and walk again, but after two days, they told her to begin accepting the reality of life in a wheelchair. She would have none of it.

“Some of it was shock and some of it was being overwhelmed with what’s going on but for the most part it wasn’t acceptable to me,” she said.

As it turns out, her instincts were right. A few days later, with no explanation, her toe began to move. After six weeks in the hospital re-learning how to walk, Scott DeMaria returned to school.

Years later, she learned of a possible reason for her recovery. After the bus flipped, Scott DeMaria crawled out onto the ground and spent over an hour with her back in direct contact with the snow, so much so that her body temperature dropped to 94 degrees.

“We always traveled very well-dressed. None of us had jackets on. It was freezing,” she said.

The snow may have controlled the swelling around the spine, allowing the surgery performed that night to save the integrity of her spinal chord. Years later, a similar, medically-induced treatment would be used on Buffalo Bills’ tight end Kevin Everett, who suffered a broken spine in a collision in the first week of the 2007 season. Hypothermic saline is injected into the body to keep swelling in check, but the treatment is somewhat controversial because an overdose can shut down organs.

“My good friend who’s an M.D. said, ‘It’s nice to have God doing the dosing,'” Scott DeMaria said.

Scott DeMaria didn’t learn what happened to Beeler and Hopp until a day after her surgery. Besides shock, she said, her initial reaction was one of resolve. She told herself she would recover and swim for them.

“It was something I can do for them, it was something for me to focus on, and really from then on they never left my mind,” she said. “It was, at the time, the only way I knew to honor them.”

In the wake of the accident, Scott DeMaria said, the school mourned as one.

“It was really a very celebratory time,” she said. “For all that we were mourning, for all that we lost, it was a real time of healing.”

To honor her teammates, Scott DeMaria first had to teach herself to walk, and the way to do so was to mimic an infant. She rolled over, crawled and kneeled during the learning process, which at 18 years old seemed backwards and unnecessary to her.

“Why do I need to know how to crawl? I don’t wanna crawl, I wanna walk,” she said. “I was a stubborn patient, but it served me well.”

The toughest thing about rehab wasn’t the physical motions, she said; it was the bizarre lack of sensation in her lower body. Even when standing with the assistance of doctors, Scott DeMaria said she couldn’t tell if she was upright or sitting when her eyes were closed.

That summer, back in Phoenix, Scott DeMaria’s spine collapsed, and she had three more surgeries. This time, instead of going through her back, surgeons attacked the spine from the front of her body. She compared the surgeries to righting a fallen tree: It’s much easier to push it back upright from the front than pulling it from behind. However, these surgeries meant a collapsed lung, heart failure and moving her stomach aside to reach the spine.

But she prevailed and returned to school in the fall. She didn’t swim her sophomore year, and instead covered the swim team for The Observer.

Her junior year, she was back in the pool, where she said swimming was like riding a bike: It came right back. She felt like she was out of shape after a break at the end of a season, but didn’t have to relearn the strokes. Her first meet back, she said, was a surreal experience and an average weekend at the same time. She had the same pre-race routine as before: Fiddle with her goggles, shake out her arms, splash water on herself.

Her first race after the accident was the 50 freestyle. She won her heat.

“I think other people celebrated it more than I did,” she said. “I thought it was something that I knew I was going to do.”

Scott DeMaria had to stay an extra semester to finish her degree, but that extra semester helped her meet her husband through – of all things – e-mail.

Scott DeMaria had a business class and had to set up an e-mail account. No one used computers, much less e-mail, in those days, she said, but Jamie DeMaria, a fellow Notre Dame grad who used to be the swim team’s manager, did. He was a chronic e-mail forwarder, and Scott DeMaria loved e-mail, so they became friends via cyberspace. “That’s how we reconnected, was through e-mail,” she laughed.

Scott DeMaria accepted a job as a teacher and swim coach at her high school alma mater, Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, and asked Jamie to go with her when she chaperoned the school’s junior-senior prom.

When a Xavier student died after an accident with a drunk driver, Scott DeMaria said, Jamie understood the effect it had on her and supported her so she could help the students.

“What I saw in Jamie was someone who understood how something like that affected me,” she said. “And when I saw that quality in him, I knew this was someone who could spend my life with.”

The two are now married (Notre Dame history professor Thomas Blantz married them) and live in Annapolis, Md., with their two sons, James and Edward. Scott DeMaria has won the Notre Dame Spirit Award, the Executive Journal Comeback of the Year Award and the Honda Award for Inspiration. The National Women’s Leadership Conference named her Woman of the Year, and the Institute for International Sport made her a Fellow.

Scott DeMaria said going back and writing a book about the incident wasn’t tough in itself, but she found certain quirks in her research both frightening and funny.

“I think I was clearly so na’ve and young at 18 that I don’t think I fully appreciated how horrible physically it was for me,” she said. “I suffered collapsed lungs and heart failure, and at times was lucky to come out of these surgeries at all.”

The research was at times comical as well. The minutiae of details she recorded in her journals at the time seemed ridiculous 16 years later.

“[I was] worrying about how the steroids gave me acne and what the guys were going to think,” she said. “It was meaningless, but it was a huge deal at the time when you’re 18.”

The book allowed her to express her understanding to others who have been in similar accidents. She said a girl whose brother suffered a similar injury was in tears at the book signing, saying she wanted her brother to read it.

“I turned to my husband and I said, ‘That’s the reason I did this, really just to say to someone I understand,'” she said.

She stressed the importance of the University, both at the time and to this day, in her successful recovery. When her parents wanted to move her to a renowned rehab facility, she resisted. It was important for her to be here, she told them, and they got it. She had friends visit from other schools who were amazed at the level of care and support.

“[My friends said] ‘If this were our school, it would happen, people would say, Geez that sucks, and they would forget about me,'” she said. “And this school has never forgotten.”