A Winning Spirit: Aspen's Road to Recovery

Published on: 07/15/2019

It was a typical beach day during Spring Break and 11-year-old Aspen was playing in the water. As the waves rolled in, Aspen dove into the water, hitting her head on the shallow ocean floor. The impact caused her neck to be pushed forward, but she didn't feel much pain—she told her parents that she felt “weird.” Her dad, Mike, quickly tended to her while her mom, Catherine, dialed 911.

At the hospital, doctors discovered Aspen had fractured the C-5 vertebrae in her neck. She was then rushed to the nearest trauma center, where they confirmed the fracture. After she was released from the hospital, her parents were determined to find the best medical care for their daughter. They were referred to Dr. Toba Niazi, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Nicklaus Children's Hospital. The Brain Institute is comprised of a world-renowned team and its neurology/neurosurgery programs are routinely ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

“We were all very emotional yet grateful to be at Nicklaus Children's Hospital,” recalls Catherine. “The hospital staff was extraordinarily helpful and caring.”

Dr. Niazi reviewed the results of the MRI and CT scan and she explained that Aspen had a C-5 chip fracture, as well as ligament damage. Aspen had been very lucky. In fact, there was a 50/50 chance the injury could heal without surgery. Concerned yet hopeful, Mike and Catherine agreed to hold off on the surgery and instead Aspen was measured for a neck brace. For three long months, Aspen wore the brace 24 hours a day as they waited to see if she would heal. Wearing a brace every day was challenging for Aspen, but they knew this was necessary for her recovery.

Three months went by and Aspen was doing well, so her family was hoping surgery wasn't necessary. However, after another CT scan, Dr. Niazi found that the joint was unstable, and she would need to do an anterior fusion of C-5 and C-6 to stabilize the joint. This was not the news the family expected. “Dr. Niazi made a personal phone call to us later that evening to answer any questions we had,” said Catherine. “Mike and I trusted her, so we asked her to schedule surgery as soon as possible.”

During the surgery, which took place in July 2017, the nursing staff kept the family informed so they knew everything was proceeding smoothly. Afterward, Dr. Niazi told the parents that the surgery was successful. “We felt so lucky to be in a facility like Nicklaus Children's Hospital,” said Catherine. “The little touches make a huge difference when you are stressed and exhausted. The room was very nice, we could order food, the nurses were helpful, and we were able to stay with Aspen on a full-size pull out couch. hese things all really make it a lot easier.”

Throughout the recovery period, Mike and Catherine did their best to focus on the positive and remain hopeful. “We would text Aspen positive quotes daily just to try to keep her spirits up and her mind positive,” said Catherine. “We taped a phrase over her bed that read, ‘I am healing. I am a fighter. I will be stronger than before.’ ”

Although Aspen had to wear a neck brace for another three months post-surgery, they were all relieved that she was on the road to recovery. By the end of December, the brave girl was able to resume most of her normal activities. She was particularly excited about returning to competitive swimming. Less than three months later, Aspen was participating in championship swim meets.

Aspen at a swim meet

Her determination paid off. At the Junior Olympics, she broke seven Florida Gold Coast records and earned 11 gold medals. She went on to compete at the National Club Swimming Association (NCSA) swim meet in Orlando, where she earned seven gold, one silver, and four bronze medals. Aspen was ranked No. 1 in the nation for girls 12 and under in the 50 yards freestyle and among the top five in the nation in her other events.

She definitely bounced back stronger than ever, and Aspen's parents will always be grateful to Dr. Niazi for the phenomenal care she gave their little girl.

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