A persistence that's paying off

Published May 25, 2007

Samantha Slusak glances to her right. "Max," she says with a playful smile, "how do you feel?"

"Whoa-oa-oa! I feel good!" Max screams, sounding exactly like James Brown, the late Godfather of Soul.

"Max," Samantha says as her dad Frank enters her room. "This is the person I was telling you about."

Once again, the robot voice responds, only this time it's hysterical laughter. Real knee-slapping stuff.

Of course Frank is in on the joke. He's in on everything that involves his 18-year-old daughter who just a short time back was not expected to survive her terrible, paralyzing gymnastics injury.

Max is a computer, Sam's faithful companion who turns on the lights, adjusts the TV, engages the Internet or, God forbid, sounds an alarm. The gadget, like a Genie, responds to her every command, and you quickly realize why her fellow seniors at River Ridge High voted her "Best Smile" in the 2007 yearbook - even though most of them haven't laid eyes on her in two years.

Tonight, hundreds of people packed into the gymnasium will see that smile for themselves.

This girl who died three times is graduating.

On time.

With honors.

Crying and believing

Laurie Peterson will push Sam across the stage tonight. In her 18 years of teaching, she has never had a student affect her like this. At first she hesitated to take on the duty that called for her to leave the River Ridge campus and drive a mile to the Slusaks' home. Sam would be her first-ever homebound student.

"I worried it would be too sad," Peterson said. Sure enough, she cried every day the first two weeks. Sam, once muscular and athletic with the promise of a collegiate gymnastics career, was now so frail and tiny, so pale and helpless. But she worked hard to grasp the lessons - English, American history, psychology, law studies.

"She changed me forever," Peterson said. "Sam made me believe she will get better."

Peterson has five kids of her own, aged 10 to 26. Sometimes she took her fourth-grader, Emma, to the Slusaks' house. Emma wrote a speech for a contest at her school. It was about Sam.

It was about what it means to be really brave.

Tied to machines

Good gymnasts are fearless. They dive and flip and tumble without hesitation, knowing the rubber mats will ease the pain. But on July 12, 2005, Sam landed badly at the Suncoast Gymnastics Academy.

Cellie Slusak, Sam's mom, describes the scene when she arrived at the local hospital:

"The weather was bad, so they couldn't Bayflite her. I was told to go sit with her because she was not going to make it. A pastor arrived. Sam was pale white, not moving. Her eyes were wide open but she was unconscious."

Until this moment, Frank and Cellie Slusak had gone about life like so many other parents with young children. They were fixtures on the sidelines at older sister Sarah's soccer games, but somehow managed to get Sam to gymnastics and little Frankie to his own soccer fields.

Frank and Cellie had met years earlier while students at the University of Alabama. They moved to New Jersey. She taught school, he ran a construction company. In 1995, with three children, they moved to New Port Richey to be closer to family.

Now that family would be tested. They rallied around Sam. For nine months, she showed little movement. At a Miami hospital, "she died three times," Cellie said. She couldn't eat, so her weight dropped from 108 to 76 pounds. Machines helped her breath, kept her nourished.

Sam has no recollection of the accident. When she first realized she was in a hospital, she said, "I thought it was for my wisdom teeth."

Closer to a C

So much has changed in the last two years. A hefty, though undisclosed, settlement of a lawsuit the Slusaks filed against the gym allows Sam access to high-tech equipment and therapy. It allows Frank to stay home with her every day. He lifts Sam, exercises her, makes her laugh.

Sam goes to physical or occupational therapy five days a week. She gets acupuncture next to celebrities, including Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This week retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was leaving the clinic as Sam arrived.

Sam is up to 104 pounds. The hole in her throat, where the life-sustaining breathing tube had been inserted, has finally healed.

Not long ago, Sam developed kidney stones. The good news: she felt them and told her parents. She is a quadriplegic, but her mother offered this analysis: If A equals no feeling and E equals normal, Sam is closer to a C.

Another major sign of progress: Sam gets to leave the house occasionally with her longtime boyfriend, Wesley Poole, a junior at Florida State University whom Cellie says is "like another son." For all her faith in Wesley, though, Cellie says, "I sit and watch the clock."

Sam earned a 3.5 grade point average, so tonight she will wear the purple cord that goes to honor grads. But her learning hasn't been confined to school books or how to thump her dad nightly in Wheel of Fortune. She has become an authority on spinal cord injuries. The stem cell debate has made her politically active. She and Frank e-mailed U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. This week the front of her T-shirt said, "You wanna see me shake it?" On the back: "Support stem cell research."

The family has drawn inspiration from Patrick Rummerfield, who in a 1974 car wreck broke his neck in four places and was paralyzed from the neck down. Through a grueling rehabilitation process and positive attitude, he mystified doctors and became a triathlete and race car driver. Rummerfield, 51, has called Sam to motivate her to keep working.

"When something like this happens," Cellie said, "all you hear is what she will never do. Patrick is just the opposite."

Much of Sam's progress is directly attributed to an electric stimulation bike that forces movement of her limbs. She rides it five times a week. Data from the exercise is transmitted to the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.

It is there that the family will travel for three weeks in July. Sam will be a patient of noted neurologist and research scientist John W. McDonald, who gained fame treating actor Christopher Reeve. The Slusaks will learn long-term restorative therapy regimens to take back home.

Always on guard

In the Slusak home, hope has replaced despair. No 911 calls lately, no helicopters landing at the nearby Publix to rush Sam to All Children's Hospital because of body-racking convulsions. She hasn't had a seizure in a while.

Still, mom can't drop her guard. When somebody calls the house, the phone rings simultaneously at her room at River Ridge High, where she teaches profoundly handicapped children. She can get home in minutes if needed.

Late at night, as the house is quiet and exhaustion sets in, Cellie Slusak drags a mattress into her daughter's room. She stares at the ceiling. Occasionally she dares to sleep.

Reach Pasco Editor Bill Stevens at 727 869-6250 or stevens@sptimes.com.