Back in the swim, and ready to win

Unsinkable Corey Wheatley overcomes a seizure and painful rehab on the way back to championship form.

My Summer Vacation

August 01, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

After the seizure and the surgery, she couldn't recall how to swim. The 12-year-old lay in an Arizona hospital worrying about what the doctors would do next and wondering how she had ever done the backstroke.

In her hometown of Oxford, Md., Corey Wheatley's backstroke was tough to beat. A champion swimmer from the time she was 6 years old, Corey learned how to swim in a creek behind her house. Out past her town's Victorian houses, its sandy beach and the old-time ferry that still carries people from Oxford to Bellevue, Corey's mother Ellen saw her daughter evolve from a good swimmer to one who could become great.

When Corey started swim team at the YMCA of Talbot County, her coaches saw her potential, too. She broke six records, including the 100-yard individual medley record among the 9-to-10 years old, a record that had belonged to a girl who is now at Harvard University on a full swim scholarship. Corey has a future, people told them. Corey could be in the Olympics.

She certainly has the competitive spirit. Before the seizure, she swam in a winter league, took three weeks off, then joined a summer league, "for fun," her mother says. Before the surgery, Corey practiced almost every day.

She and her mom, who coordinates a state breast cancer screening program, have long known that if a girl is serious about the Olympics, if she really wants to go to Harvard on a swim scholarship, she starts serious training when she is 12.

So Corey was.

She was in the deep end of the Y pool on the night of the last practice before the big regional meet back in March. Fifteen teams from four states were expected the next day. The year before, Corey had ranked among the top 10 in five different events, and that was with seven states represented.

At first, her girlfriends thought she was cutting up because she swam, they said, like a chicken. Corey managed to get to the edge, and her coach saw this was no joke. He yanked her from the pool and may have saved her life.

In the hospital afterward, doctors discovered an arteriovenous malformation, which meant Corey had been born with an abnormal tangle of veins and arteries. The growth could have formed on her brain, but it chose her spinal cord, and when it hemorrhaged, the bleeding caused Corey to have a seizure.

Ellen e-mailed the swim team from the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix later: "Met the surgical team today. The risk of no intervention is much higher than the risk of trying to remove the lesion. So, at the crack of dawn tomorrow ... "

Corey's coach, George Higley, and the swim team back at the Y in Easton wanted to help. One of the mothers started a fund-raising drive, and while they collected $21,000, the team sent photos from old practices and meets. Katie pasted them on the walls of her sister's hospital room so Corey would never feel far away.

"Corey is back in her room in ICU," Ellen wrote after the surgery. "She is awake and talking and is moving her toes fairly well. The monitors of her nervous system were steady throughout the operation. In other words, it is looking very good that there will not be permanent damage."

The surgeons removed all but 10 percent of the lesion and warned Ellen that the remaining tangle could bleed anytime or never bother Corey again.

"Corey got a pain pump today that has given her enough relief that we are able to turn her and she is moving her feet well," Ellen wrote to the swim team. "She is able to bend with a little help and as the spinal cord swelling decreases we expect increased movement daily. The rehab workout is going to be tougher than anything Coach Higley could dream up, but I am confident that Corey's ability to push herself - that she learned as a swimmer - will help rehab go faster."

The first amazing thing was that Corey came through surgery without paralysis. The second amazing thing was how she progressed through rehabilitation, which included learning how to walk again.

"Corey is still dealing with significant pain but can control it with pills now instead of IV meds," her mother wrote. "A lot of her therapy will be in a pool. Imagine that!"

Despite her fears, Corey easily remembered how to swim.

She returned to Maryland in time to miss only two practices of the summer league. When the first practices became too painful, she slipped into a quiet lane and swam by herself. When that was too much, she stayed in the dive well and treaded water.

"She was constantly working," her mother says of their first weeks back. "Without anybody having to tell her to keep doing it, to swim, she just did it."

Corey has spent most of the summer at the Y, going to physical therapy three days a week. Her trainer teaches her how to regain the strength she lost in her muscles. She returned barely able to reach her knees but now she can touch her toes. The 30-pound weights she once lifted have since doubled to 60.

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