For this athlete, wins come a step at a time

May 27, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Most sports heroes are cheered for their physical prowess. Here's one worth cheering simply for her ability to walk.

A woman who once was a model athlete, and now can't carry a cup of coffee without fear of spilling it.

A woman who said she was shunned by her mother, and never much knew her father.

A woman who lost almost everything, and will never be whole again.

Melissa Ambrose, 31, was a three-sport athlete entering her junior year at South Hagerstown High when her world collapsed in July 1985.

She doesn't recall the details of her car accident. The winding mountain road. The faulty steering. The missed curve. The crash into the ravine.

All she knows is what the wreck did to her, sending her into a monthlong coma, leaving her with permanent brain damage, depriving her of a normal life.

"All my dreams got shot to hell and back a long time ago," she says, the emotion rising in her voice, her head shaking uncontrollably.

And yet, she goes on.

She swims. She lifts weights. She completes 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzles.

She does all this at The League for People With Disabilities, one of those special Baltimore places you rarely hear about, yet offer hope to those who need it most.

A week from Monday, Ambrose will participate in a golf clinic for the physically chal lenged before the league's annual charity tournament at The Timbers at Troy in Elkridge, a fully accessible course for the disabled.

Her spirit is evident when she slaps a table twice after saying something she finds amusing. It is evident when she feeds lunch to other medical day-care clients at the league.

"The lowest point was when I had just woken up from my coma and thought I was dreaming," she said. "It was a hell of a nightmare. And then I figured out it was real. And then you start rebuilding."

Ambrose suffers from ataxia, a loss of muscle coordination resulting from traumatic brain damage. She lives with her boyfriend and his mother in East Baltimore. If not for the league, she probably would sit at home, watching television.

The Cold Spring Lane facility is a haven for disabled people, particularly those over the age of 21, who no longer are eligible for school and housing services. Ambrose comes virtually every weekday for physical, occupational and recreational therapy. Like almost all of the league's clients, she pays through medical assistance.

Ambrose was referred to the league in 1997 after being told nothing more could be done for her in outpatient rehabilitation. She had spent time at five institutions that "shipped you out and moved you on." But now, under the league's long-term program, she seems fulfilled.

"I feel needed here -- I think that's the right word," Ambrose said. "I'm able to help others out that aren't capable of helping themselves. That in turn makes me feel better about myself.

"I mean, you might not understand what I'm saying, but what I'm doing, the progress I seem to make, all reflects back on how I feel about myself. If I didn't like what I was doing, you wouldn't get any progress out of me."

The progress comes, but it is incremental. Ambrose knows she will never be close to what she was. She played softball, volleyball and basketball at South Hagerstown. She loved math. She wanted to be an accountant.

"She was a sparkplug, very fiery, someone who got people up, a hustler," said John Lynch, her softball coach at South Hagerstown, who now works at Cape Cod (Mass.) Regional Technical High School.

"I just remember her being the kind of player every coach likes to have on his team. She could run through a wall for you. She also had that side where she would take other players under her wing and get them on the right track."

Her accident occurred in West Virginia when she was 16. Ambrose was driving to a service station, followed by her grandmother, whose car was in need of repair. Their plan was to leave the grandmother's car at the station, then ride home together.

Only Ambrose never got that far.

"If they [paramedics] had moved me the wrong way, they could have killed me or left me paralyzed for life," she said. "I'm very lucky to be as high-functional as I am."

Of course, for the disabled, luck is a relative term. Ambrose would love to play basketball again, can still shoot, in fact. "But," she said, "you've got to be able to dribble the ball."

Her greatest accomplishment?

"Just being able to recapture what I have recaptured -- the ability to walk and keep my balance and all that great stuff that everyone takes for granted, because they've never lost it," Ambrose said.

She said she rarely returns to Hagerstown, citing "too many bad memories." And she said she rarely sees her four sisters and brother, all of whom live out of town.

Her mother in Hagerstown could not be reached for comment. "Mom expects me to be the way I used to be. You can't ask that of me when I've had these kinds of injuries. [But] she can't accept it," Ambrose said.

Her mind is nimble. Her body is not.

Some days are better than others. Some are worse.

"I have figured out when I'm feeling down, it makes me shake more," Ambrose said. "So, I've got a way of not even worrying about it. If you think about it, that's what I injured -- my brain. I just block it out. That thing ain't right, anyway."

She slaps the table, laughing.

Coming from Melissa Ambrose, it is one beautiful sound.

Pub Date: 5/27/99

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