HANOVER, Pa. (AP) - July 31 was a special day for the students in South Western High School’s class of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic had derailed their final semester and delayed their graduation ceremony by more than two months. On that Friday evening, they were finally able to celebrate all they had accomplished.
Among those dressed in long black gowns with matching black mortar boards was Sam Zimmerman. He and a few dozen of his classmates processed down from the high school and into the Mustang Corral, walking by the same sign that greets football players on Friday nights:
THE CHALLENGE IS INEVITABLE
DEFEAT IS OPTIONAL
The pandemic had created many new challenges. A sudden transition to remote learning. The cancellation of spring sports. A palpable level of uncertainty, especially for seniors.
But even at just 18 years old, Sam was no stranger to adversity.
At a glance, he appears no different than the average teenager. You might not notice that one of his eyebrows doesn’t seem to move or see the faint indentations that run down the right side of his forehead.
And you certainly wouldn’t know that eight years ago he battled against a rare brain infection that doctors said should have killed him.
Sam’s name was the last one to be called out that late July day.
As he got up to receive his diploma, with his family cheering him on from the stands, he was overcome with emotion.
For Sam, graduating high school was a milestone, upon a mountain of many milestones, he knows he was never promised.
The medical mystery
It all started with a high fever and an intense pounding in his head.
It was April 2012. Sam was 9 years old and in the fourth grade at William Penn Elementary in Bethel Park, the western Pennsylvania town where he grew up. He had recently developed a new passion in his life - playing ice hockey. The only thing he really enjoyed about school was gym class, solely because that’s when he got to play floor hockey.
One day that April he was feeling so ill that his grandparents picked him up from school and took him to the doctor. He was diagnosed with strep throat and told to go home, eat plenty of ice cream and rest up.
But his conditioned only worsened in the following days.
His temperature wouldn’t stay down and everything he ate and drank kept coming back up. His family took him to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where doctors concluded that he must be suffering from appendicitis and removed his appendix.
He was discharged soon after but wasn’t recovering as well as expected. Less than a week later he woke up and immediately knew something was wrong: the entire left side of his body was paralyzed. His parents called 911, and he was rushed by ambulance back to Children’s.
Sam remembers lying in his hospital bed and looking up at his parents, who were both crying and hugging each other. At just 9 years old, he was confused at what was going on and how nobody knew what was happening with his body.
The doctors placed Sam into an MRI machine, which showed he had suffered a stroke. While still in the machine, he started to have a seizure. He was rushed into the operating room where he underwent a four-hour-long craniectomy, a procedure in which part of his skull was removed to relieve pressure and to clean out an area of his brain that had become infected.
Jeff and Lindsay Zimmerman were told there was a high probability their son wouldn’t even make it through the operation.
“They kept coming out more than once telling us, ‘You need to prepare his final arrangements. He is not going to make it,’” Lindsay said.
The first 48 hours after the operation were very touch-and-go. His parents were told that he wasn’t out of the woods yet and that if he were to survive, he might never walk or talk again. He would certainly never play ice hockey ever again for the rest of his life.
“‘Don’t get your hopes up just because he’s awake and he’s moving or he might be talking a little bit,’” Lindsay recalled them saying.
“‘Do not get your hopes up because this can go downhill at any time.’”
Sam was in recovery in the ICU for more than two weeks. For the first few days his eyes wouldn’t open because of the swelling. He stunned everyone when he regained some of his speech and mobility. One day he was able to go into the bathroom and finally saw the aftermath of what had happened to him.
“I see my reflection in the mirror, and I have no hair. I’m missing part of my skull. And my eyes are swollen. And I was screaming and crying, ‘I’m a monster. I’m ugly,’” Sam recalled.
Hospital staff came rushing into his room at the sound of his cries, thinking he needed urgent medical attention.
“(But) it was just me seeing my reflection for the very first time.”
Igniting the fire
Sam had been battling a strain of strep called streptococcus milleri, which had developed from a sinus infection. Instead of traveling down through his throat, the bacterial infection did the reverse and shot upward, eventually reaching his brain. The infection caused him to suffer a stroke, which is what eventually led to the seizure he experienced inside the MRI.
A few days after his surgery he started to receive physical therapy. One of the exercises he had to do involved pulling colorful beads out of a ball of putty. Another focused on touching his thumbs to his index and middle fingers, five times on each hand. He still was relearning how to walk on his own and frequently had to be moved around the hospital in a wheelchair.
Early one morning a resident doctor came into his room and woke up his mother. The doctor told Lindsay that Sam’s prognosis was grim. She was told that he could still die. That his rehabilitation might fall apart. That he would never be cleared to play a contact sport again.
Sam was lying in his bed, pretending to be asleep, but he heard everything.
“Hearing those words, that’s what ignited the fire inside,” Sam said.
“That’s when I knew that I’m facing life or death. I either can go, or I can fight. And I chose the fight. I never gave up the hope.”
More than anything, Sam just wanted the chance to play hockey again, to be able to hit the ice with all his buddies.
So he began to put in the effort.
He showed so much improvement that his therapist allowed him to periodically go down to a gym area and play floor hockey. At the end of his two weeks in the ICU, he was even scoring goals.
He remained hospitalized for a few more weeks and had to have a Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter, or PICC line, inserted into his arm. The PICC provided a way for medicine and fluids to enter his body and Sam vividly remembers it as being a very painful procedure that he was fully awake for.
Around a month after being rushed into Children’s, Sam was discharged from the hospital. He had been given a heavily padded white helmet that protected his skull - it almost looked a little like the same helmet he wore on the ice.
Lindsay said that he was frequently ridiculed by people in public for his appearance. While out at a restaurant one evening, a group of people sitting nearby started laughing at Sam.
“We’ve actually had to go over and confront adults and ask them, ‘Would you appreciate it if I did this to your child?’”, Lindsay said.
Sam underwent a cranioplasty in July of that year to repair the missing part of his skull. He and his family then embarked on a much delayed trip to Walt Disney World two months later. During the trip, part of his incision split open and he had to be rushed to an urgent care in Orlando. He was immediately put on antibiotics before making the long trek back to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh.
They soon found out that Sam had developed a staph infection.
He now had to go through the whole process a second time. The prosthetic in his skull was removed and a new one was inserted. He received another painful PICC line in his arm. The hospital visit was shorter this time around, but it was another unpleasant reminder of his precarious recovery.
On September 9, 2013, Sam finally got the good news he was so desperate to hear: more than 16 months after undergoing brain surgery, he received the all-clear to return to playing hockey.
Lindsay was nervous about him returning to the ice but knew just how important it was to her son. Other hockey parents would frequently ask her how she could even breathe during Sam’s games.
“I said, ‘Because this is what he wants. And he’s here to do it. And that’s all I can ask for,’” Lindsay recalled telling them.
“‘He’s here. He’s able to do it. He’s able to walk and talk and he’s independent. So I’m okay with this.’”
Sam went on to play for the Shaha Panthers in Bethel Park. When he and his family moved to Penn Township in 2018, he was able to continue his career with the York Devils and most recently, the Central Penn Panthers.
‘She was there for a reason’
There have been many people in Sam’s life who have left an impression on him. There’s his hockey coach back in Pittsburgh, who made him a team captain and lovingly nicknamed him ‘The Animal.’ There’s his former coworker at Utz, who out of the blue one day told him he had a greater purpose and would go on to inspire others.
And then there’s Paula.
Sam still remembers the day well, nearly a decade later. It was a rainy Saturday evening in late June 2012. He had been recovering at home for about a month, but had been temporarily brought back into the hospital due to a complication with his seizure medication. He was doing well enough that he was allowed to escape the four corners of his room so he and his mother went on a walk through his hall to look out the windows. It was a nice break from staring at machines all day.
A woman, who appeared to work in the maintenance department, was cleaning nearby. She took notice of the two of them and struck up a conversation. She asked Sam how he was doing and what he had been going through. He told her everything, from the beginning of his journey up until when doctors said he would never play hockey again.
The woman, named Paula, listened intently and then shared her own story. Years ago, she said, her son had been badly stabbed. He survived but was told he would never play football again - but, she said, he had proved everyone wrong and was now in college playing the sport he loved.
Paula told Sam to not let other people tell him what he can and can’t do. She told him that if you know you can do it for yourself, and you believe, you can do it. She then asked the pair if she could pray with them, which they accepted.
Before turning to leave, she gave them her business card, in case they wanted to keep in touch, and told them they could get more information from the hospital. Later that night, Sam and Lindsay stopped by the nurses’ station and showed them the card. Nobody at the hospital knew who Paula was. They had never heard of her.
Sam came walking away from the encounter convinced that Paula was an angel sent from heaven.
“She’s never ever left either one of our thoughts,” Lindsay said.
“Paula is out there somewhere in Pittsburgh, and we don’t know where she is. But she made an impression on our lives that she’ll never ever know.”
‘I’m still here’
This summer, the Hanover Exchange Club named Sam their 2020 Tommy Laudani A.C.E. Award recipient. The award, which stands for “Accepting the Challenge of Excellence” was named after Laudani, a 2018 Delone Catholic grad who battled for more than two years against a rare and aggressive form of cancer called desmoplastic small round cell tumor.
Tommy died from the disease a few months after graduating from Delone.
The honor isn’t lost on Sam.
Both boys battled against childhood illnesses, fighting for the chance to pursue their passions. For Tommy, that meant working to make a successful return to the cross country course. Sam recognized the striking similarities in what they both had endured - and what they both had achieved.
“He was a fighter, he was a warrior,” Sam said after reading about his story.
“I wish I could have met him in person.”
Along with a plaque commemorating the award, Sam received a scholarship for more than $2,600 to put toward his education.
Out of all the pain that has entered into the Zimmerman’s lives, positives can be seen everywhere.
“It was almost like it was meant to happen in order to make me open my eyes like this and think different from others and different perspectives,” Sam said.
“Not many people (in my situation) can walk or talk or anything like that. That’s why you got to be appreciative with what you have and who you are.”
That appreciation extends to his parents, family members and friends, who have supported him from the beginning.
Lindsay said it’s also made her a more patient and grateful person.
“It takes a lot to get me mad because as long as I’m not getting a phone call telling me that I need to make final arrangements, it’s a good day.”
“I was going to have to leave him back in Pittsburgh if he didn’t make it because we had to move out (to Hanover) two years ago. I don’t have to go and visit him every year on his birthday and wonder what could have been, because I get to see what is.”
A plan for the future
Sam hung up his skates and retired from his hockey career earlier this year. But as one chapter in his life was coming to a close, another was just beginning.
About a year ago, his older sister, Autumn, sent him a 40 minute-long video of an inspirational speaker. He watched it straight through and then played it back two more times.
He knew he found a new calling in his life - to share the hope of his life story with as many people as he could.
He started writing and sharing positive and inspirational messages on his Instagram (@the.animal.motivation) and Snapchat (sam_zim20) accounts. He has been applying to every speaking opportunity he finds and had been accepted to speak at a TED event this past spring before it was canceled. He’s also currently in the process of writing a book, which will detail his life experiences while incorporating his positive messages throughout.
In late August, Sam reached another milestone in his life when he started his first semester at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. He’s studying mechatronics and has already been able to share his story with one of his new classmates, who he learned has also undergone their own medical battles.
One of the key messages he emphasizes is to not treat others differently.
“I have a dent in my head for the rest of my life, but it doesn’t make me different from who I am as a person,” Sam said.
“Other people may have other medical issues, but it still doesn’t make them different from you or me.”
One day hopes to be able to return to his alma mater and speak to students, but his biggest goal is to be able to share his inspirational messages with millions.
“Wake up every morning being happy - your heart is beating, your brain is functioning, you’re able to be there, and you’re around the people you love. You have this beautiful gift of life.”
Information from: The Evening Sun, http://www.eveningsun.com
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