'Lady Vol Strength'
Amber Gray, right, leaves Drake Center (AP)
Amber Gray, right, leaves Drake Center (AP)

Posted Aug 15, 2009


One moment is seared in Tonya Carter’s mind. Her daughter, slumped in a wheelchair inside a warm van, is headed to a rehab center. Amber Gray can’t keep her eyes open, and she tells her mother that she is so tired. Carter turns away so her daughter can’t see the tears. When she turns back around, Gray, using her fingers to prop open her eyes, manages a smile and tells her mother not to cry.

Tonya Carter cried again a few weeks later. But they were tears of joy and relief as Amber Gray walked out of the Drake Center in Cincinnati under her own power while wearing orange Lady Vol shorts and a black strength and conditioning T-shirt with an image of a barbell on the back and the words “Lady Vol Strength” on the front. Gray selected those clothes for a reason.

“There was definitely a huge reason because while I was going through all my rehab not only was my family on my mind but getting back to Knoxville was on my mind,” Gray said. “Having those things on every time I stepped out of my room it helped to push me to get through whatever I had to get through for that day.”

Amber Gray, left, walks to the car Tuesday, with her mother, Tonya Carter, right, as well wishers from Drake Center watch her leave. (Photo by Michelle Cordy/Drake Center).

Gray left the Drake Center, a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center in Cincinnati, under her own power on Aug. 11. Those were steps she never expected to have to take on July 2 when Gray entered St. Mary’s Medical Center in Knoxville to repair a torn rotator cuff in her left shoulder, the result of a practice injury in late March. She was in recovery and appeared to be fine post-surgery, but a few hours later her condition deteriorated.

“I received the call from Dr. (Greg) Mathien that the surgery went very well, Amber is doing well, it was as expected,” Carter said. “And then three to four hours later I find out she’s on a respirator and her lungs have filled with fluid, and she can’t breathe on her own. We get past that hurdle, she’s breathing on her own, and we find out she’s had a stroke. She starts to recover and then they find the aneurysm.

“It’s more than feeling like the rug’s been pulled out from under us. I actually told a family member that I really feel like I’ve been run over by a bus, and I keep waiting for someone to wake me up and tell me this really didn’t happen.”

Gray, who was on a stretcher, and Carter flew on a medical jet to Cincinnati where renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Mario Zuccarello of the Mayfield Clinic and the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute performed a 12.5-hour surgery to clip the aneurysm.

“We could not have had better care for her starting with the folks at St. Mary’s,” Carter said. “I really want to make sure that people understand that our decision to transport Amber home had nothing to do with the quality of care that she received at St. Mary’s. They were amazing. Even the folks at the UC Neuroscience Institute said that they didn’t have to repeat the tests or scans that they ran so they had done what they should have done under those circumstances.”

“It was truly just a situation where I had spoken with some medical folks that I know here that recommended, based on the circumstances, that she get to the Neuroscience Institute where this is truly what they do,” said Carter, who is a human resources specialist and consultant for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and thus is very familiar with the medical facilities in the area. “This is their area of expertise so the quality of care that she received there and at Drake, as her mother I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I literally slept in the hospital room with her. The fact they supported that and allowed me to stay with her was truly wonderful.”

Gray was admitted to Drake Center on July 23 and underwent intensive rehabilitation. She left the facility two-and-a-half weeks ahead of schedule and held a press conference on Tuesday with her mother and Dr. Mark Goddard, the center’s medical director of physical medicine and rehabilitation, and professor and chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Cincinnati.

Gray, Carter and Goddard were interviewed by phone later in the week after Gray had returned home to Mason, Ohio, and they recounted the last six weeks of her life.

For Carter the first gift of life was when Amberly Tierra Gray was born on March 2, 1990. The second gift came 19 years later when her daughter survived a medical ordeal that far too often is fatal because of the suddenness of the rupture of the aneurysm.

“I definitely feel that way,” Carter said. “People were asking when she was released why was I crying because this is a happy occasion, and I said you don’t understand. It’s not that she’s going home. It’s that she’s walking. She’s talking. She’s thinking. She can see out of both of her eyes. There are so many things that up until this happened I would have taken for granted that she would be able to do. I am just so thankful that she’s still with us and that she is continuing to improve.”

It seems odd that anyone could wonder why a mother would cry at that moment. Pat Summitt, whose own son, Tyler, will be 19 years old next month, had her eyes fill with tears Friday as she talked in a conference room in the Lady Vols basketball office about Gray.

Summitt was a daily presence at the hospital in Knoxville when Gray became ill, as were Carter and Gray’s father, Carlton Gray.

“I have never feared so much for a player and her well being long range,” Summitt said. “The emotions were a roller coaster, good days, bad days, question marks. The one thing that came out of it, it pulled our team so close together and our staff. They were all there. I don’t think her mom ever really left that hospital.”

Summitt saw the worry and fatigue on their faces and realized they needed to take a break, however brief, to recharge.

“I actually told her (Carter) one day, ‘You get out of this room, you and Carlton. Both of you are out. I want time with Amber.’ ”

Gray ended up boosting everyone’s spirits with her sense of humor, even when she could not even open her eyes to see.

“The way she’s handled it I will always remember that,” Summitt said. “Everybody is fighting back the tears, and she’s upbeat and positive. We’re all worried to death and, for her, everything is positive. One day I walked in her room and she said, ‘I smell you, Coach.’ She smells my perfume. I was sitting in the room, and she was asleep and Tonya and I were whispering. She goes, ‘I hear you, Coach.’ ”

Summitt called on Gray while she was in Cincinnati, too. Someone from the Lady Vols office checked in daily, whether it was Summitt, her longtime secretary, Katie Wynn, Heather Mason, Jenny Moshak or an assistant coach. Gray’s teammates from Lakota West High School in her home state and her Lady Vol teammates also were regular callers.

“Every day,” Gray said. “If Coach isn’t talking to me then she’s talking to one of my parents. It’s been every day I’ve talked to either her, Heather, Katie, my teammates, somebody.”

On the day Gray was to be released from Drake, Carter’s phone rang early that morning. It was Summitt.

“She was the first person I heard from saying, ‘OK, today’s the day. Is she ready?’ ” Carter said. “You can’t beat that.”

Gray was discharged sooner than expected from Drake, and Goddard attributed it to several factors, the biggest of which was her will to get better.

“I think there are several reasons,” Goddard said. “Probably the main one is that she was such an excellent athlete to begin with. If this would have been somebody who is 70 or even 50 years old they probably wouldn’t have survived this. A similar 19-year-old individual who was not an excellent athlete and in superb condition as she was would not have been able to survive this and come through it as well as she has. She was blessed with a physical nature that allowed her to excel. The other thing is we have an excellent rehab program here. The neuro-rehab program at UC and at Drake Center are state of the art as far as helping people with their neurological recovery.

“But I think probably the most important thing is just her spirit. I’m a scientist, but I also do believe that there is more than just science. Her faith and her spirit and what she brought to the table as far as her training as an athlete and she even commented on that – the training that she had at Tennessee, that it drove her, she used all those skills and brought that to the rehab – her spirit and her will to overcome this was, I believe, the foremost thing that helped her with her recovery.”

Gray said she heard Summitt and Mason, the strength and conditioning coach, in her head when she pushed through her rehab exercises.

“I think a lot of what they have said has stuck in my head,” Gray said. “Heather is always telling us to push through the lines or them always telling us to work your hardest. The quotes in the weight room that Heather put up. T-shirt quotes. Those have been in my head throughout this process.”

She had to learn to get out of the wheelchair and walk. She needed help with simple tasks such as putting on clothes and getting into a shower. She wasn’t able to swallow completely. She began to rehab her shoulder, the injury that put her in a hospital and ultimately saved her life.

Gray injured the shoulder during a five-on-five full court drill while playing defense in late March. She wanted to stay on the court, but Moshak, the team’s chief of sports medicine, pulled her to the sideline. Tennessee was being put through an intensive workout session because the Lady Vols had lost days before to Ball State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, a program first after reaching at least the Sweet 16 for 27 consecutive years.

Summitt’s usual postseason routine is light practices – because of the travel and limited time between games the practices are often of the walk-through variety and shooting drills – and then individual workouts in mid-April after the season is over. But a first round loss in March was uncharted water for her program, and Summitt took advantage of the down time by scheduling full team workouts that were short by NCAA mandate but intense.

For Gray that loss now makes a lot more sense. Without that physical practice session Gray, in all likelihood, never injures her shoulder and doesn’t end up in a hospital in July when the aneurysm in her brain, now hemorrhaging and having caused a stroke, is discovered. The fact she was already hospitalized and critical care was delivered immediately were the keys to saving her life.

“That is something that I’ve always believed in,” Gray said. “That’s a part of my religion. God has my life planned out so the fact that we did lose to Ball State was something that was tremendously good for me because that is the reason I am alive. They did find the aneurysm in my brain, so as much as the practices were hard and the conditioning with Heather was hard, my teammates fought through but at the same time that’s what saved my life.

“Ball State. The loss to Ball State is a huge reason that I am still here.”

Gray laughed and said the team didn’t plan on making first-round losses a habit.

“It’s not going to happen again,” Gray said. “The fact that it did happen – once – is a good thing.”

Summitt just shakes her head as she tries to find the words – her eyes remain filled with tears – but nods when asked if that loss saved a player’s life.

“It scares me to death to think about what could have happened on the court,” Summitt said.

Summitt has always said that adversity reveals character, and she emerged from this ordeal in awe of Gray.

“I am amazed at Amber’s strength and her will to do whatever she had to do to get back,” Summitt said. “She stayed so positive through it all.”

Gray, a high school All-American, endured a tough first year at Tennessee as she struggled with conditioning, the demands of Summitt and limited playing time. Summitt often had Gray in her crosshairs, but the freshman forward persevered under a spotlight that would wilt a lesser person.

Gray also endured constant Internet speculation that she would leave Tennessee – remarks that she read at times – and she responded emphatically when asked about the situation that she was not a quitter.

“Far from it,” Gray said again this week. “I am not a quitter. I was not raised like that. I will never be raised like that. There have been a lot of tough things that I’ve gone through in my life and this is just another one, another hurdle that I have to get over that I am going to continue to fight through. I have to.”

Gray intends to return to class in January at Tennessee and Summitt said, “Oh, absolutely,” when asked if Gray would remain on scholarship. Gray also intends to return to the basketball court.

“Just seeing and hearing everybody getting ready to go back to practice that is also a motivation factor for me, because I am not there, but I will be there as soon as I can,” Gray said.

Gray called Summitt on Thursday to tell her that she wanted to be at the coach’s house this coming Monday when Summitt hosts the team to kick off the fall semester. Summitt said she would defer to Carter to determine if Gray was able to travel to Knoxville.

“We talked about it, and she wants to come back this weekend,” Summitt said. “She wants to work out with Jenny and Heather, and I think that part of it is good. They were both in the hospital with her. (But) she needs to take it one day at a time and understand that whenever she’s ready to come back we’re ready for her to be back.”

Gray has an apartment in Knoxville – the sophomores can now live off campus – and she said she intends to make several trips to Tennessee this fall.

“I am definitely going to be back in Knoxville before January,” Gray said. “I’ll be down there before the season starts. We’re a very close-knit team. If I have anything to go through the easiest thing besides being with my family is being with my teammates because we are going to get each other through it. Having their support and them having my back is a huge part of this whole process for me.”

Carter supports that return, but she also will play the role of mother and let her daughter know when it’s time to ease off the throttle.

“I fully support it 110 percent, but I do have to remind her that she doesn’t remember a lot of what’s happened and also for her to understand that her body and her mind need a little bit of rest,” Carter said. “As much as I want to encourage her and support her as her mother I still need to remind her to also make sure that she’s adhering to the signs that may be telling her that she is tired and she needs to rest.

“A part of what I’ve also shared with people is part of her motivation is she wants to be in Knoxville. As tough as it will be as her mother the day that she goes back that will definitely be a day of celebration for all of us.”

The fact that Gray wants to return to Tennessee – with the blessing of Carter – is an endorsement of the Lady Vol program, especially after a tumultuous season as the team endured 11 losses, and Gray struggled to adjust to collegiate basketball.

“Amber has had a pretty rough time, and she never gave up, but one of the things that really sold me on the University and Tennessee and their program is that they really take a holistic approach in terms of their care for the students, everything from their academic support but also socially, psychologically,” Carter said. “The fact that she has all of these resources at her disposal but also everyone from the coaching staff to the training staff has taken time out of their lives to come see Amber and place regular phone calls and make sure that anything that they could provide to help us was here – Dr. Mathien sent a special sling by overnight mail to the Drake Center because he wanted to make sure that she had exactly what she needed. Jenny Moshak, on her way home – she’s from the Michigan area – she dropped off his instructions for rehabilitation.

“It’s so easy to respect Coach Summitt for what she has accomplished on the basketball court, but there’s not a member in my family that would not tell you that the level of love and support and compassion and care that she’s shown to Amber and the family over this time it takes my respect for her as a person to a completely different level.”

It’s also easy to look back and realize that some of Gray’s struggles on the court could also have been related to the ticking time bomb in her head as the bulging area in the wall of an artery pressed on her brain. But Gray refused to look back.

“As much as I could use it as an excuse I really can’t at the same time because there are a lot of tough things in a lot of people’s lives, and you can always come up with an excuse, but you know what? At the end of the day we found it, we moved on, we got it out, and I’ve got to look forward,” Gray said.

Summitt smiles in admiration when Gray’s words are relayed to her.

“I remember when she first got here as a freshman she struggled to make the runs, and she would pull herself from practice,” Summitt said. “She is the complete opposite now. She understands how precious life is and just her will to get through what she got through is amazing.”

Gray’s teammates also have had a heavy dose of perspective delivered to them this off-season. They were maintaining daily vigils at the hospital as they watched a teammate battle for her life.

“I have talked to my teammates almost every day and the first thing that they say is we’re so glad that you’re here,” Gray said. “I think not only has this whole situation made me and my family stronger, but it’s also helped the Lady Vol family as well.”

Gray attributes her attitude in rehab to the lessons instilled in her at Tennessee this past season, even though it was tough to handle while it was happening.

“Playing for Pat for a full season and then going through what I went through these past couple of months it has helped me tremendously,” Gray said. “That and Heather. Mentally I believe that I was a lot stronger than a lot of people who go through something like this and I just made sure that I stayed positive and knew that as long as I kept working I was going to get through it.”

Gray also ended up inspiring the staff at Drake – Goddard said a few more people would likely be wearing Tennessee colors this fall – with her ebullient spirit.

“You’ll probably see a lot more orange around here,” Goddard said. “We would love it (if she returned to basketball), and we’re really pushing for her.”

Goddard said it was too soon to determine if such a complete comeback were possible, but Gray has several factors in her favor.

“I think it’s a little bit too early to tell,” Goddard said. “Now, the neurosurgeon, Dr. Zuccarello, felt like she had an excellent prognosis to get a full recovery, so I would defer to him. The weakness that she had on the left side is almost back to normal now already; now she has some endurance, conditioning, stamina, skills training and balance and all that stuff to do. So I feel very comfortable saying that I think she will have a full recovery for that.

“She did have some eye muscle weakness that is still pretty prominent. We’re having her see a specialist, a neuro-ophthalmologist, but the neurosurgeon felt comfortable that she was going to have an excellent recovery. Now, she was at the upper tier and upper echelon of collegiate basketball. To be able to get back to that it’s going to take a lot of work.”

Goddard cited the case of Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a stroke in 2005 and returned to play football in the NFL for the New England Patriots eight months later.

“People have had these type of incidents and they’re kind of cut in a mold that’s different than us normal people,” Goddard said. “It’s amazing what they can come back from. When she says she’s going to get back to playing basketball, I would not deny her. I think that she can probably do it the way she’s recovered this fast.”

Drake uses a team approach to its rehab – there are parallels to the team concept for an athlete – and each person had a role in Gray’s recovery.

“I am kind of like the coach for the team,” Goddard said. “When we look at each individual patient and the family and the circumstances we say, ‘What do we need to give them the skills (to come back)?’ The analogy would be to do a layup, do a transfer, get from a wheelchair to the bed. Fast break – walk down the hall. We had the same approach.

“We have a physical therapist who works on the legs recovery and walking. An occupational therapist who works on the arm recovery and perception, some of the visuals, ADLs, or activities of daily living, so getting dressed, bathing, getting in and out of the shower. A speech therapist who works on the language function and memory cognition and also the facial weakness. We have a recreational therapist. Her specialty is all the activities that complement all the neurological activities that we’re doing like shooting a basketball, dribbling the basketball. That works both sides of the brain to help with the recovery. We have a nutritionist that is there every meeting and goes over nutrition (Gray needed iron and protein supplements). Our rehab nurses are there. They worked on the blood pressure issues to make sure those are stable.

“A rehab psychologist works on the memory and the processing and the coping and adjustment, making sure they have a good frame of mind. Amber didn’t really need much help with that, but some patients do when they’re devastated by a stroke. We have a case manager who works with the insurance companies and works with the families to make sure they get all the right equipment that they need when they leave and all the right therapies that they need. They also communicated with (Tennessee’s medical personnel), and we made sure we had all the right splints for her rotator cuff rehab to make sure we were on the same page because that particular unit isn’t an orthopedic unit. We’re a neuro unit so we wanted to make sure we didn’t drop the ball with her rotator cuff rehab. It’s definitely a team and it’s inspirational, too, because we have a lot of victories on our team. We’re the World Series champs of rehab in this region I would say.”

Amber Gray with her team of therapists at Drake Center. (Photo by Michelle Cordy/Drake Center).

In keeping with that analogy, family and fan support are also vital, and Gray got plenty of both.

Carter moved into her daughter’s room and never left her side. Some families, because of the trauma and stress, have trouble accepting what has happened and resist the treatment protocols. Carter embraced them.

“Her mom, especially, because her mom was trying to reassure her,” Goddard said. “You can tell she is a very strong woman. She can tell that there is a very faith-based life there and there is a very strong family. I see a lot of families that don’t have faith in the doctors or the therapists and the nurses, and it’s a real problem. It’s good when you have a family like that that understands what you need to do to get through these kind of crisis situations.”

Carter said her faith sustained her the past six weeks.

“We pray all the time,” Carter said. “The Lord does not put anything on you that is greater than you can bear. That is something that we have to constantly remind ourselves of just each and every day. Also, you truly have to look at every situation as a blessing. For Amber I have told her since she was very, very young that I felt that she was bound for greatness. Amber looked at me and said, ‘Mom, my life was spared because God truly has something great in store for me. I just haven’t done it yet.’ ”

Gray also received mail from Tennessee fans who sent words of encouragement and prayers.

“The letters that she got from Tennessee were so inspirational to her,” Goddard said.

“It helps a lot,” Gray said. “I have been getting hundreds of cards. It does help a lot because it just shows how much support you really do have being a Lady Vol. It helps you to push through to get back on that floor.”

(Anyone wishing to send cards should mail them to: Amber Gray, c/o Lady Vol Basketball, 207 Thompson-Boling Arena, 1600 Phillip Fulmer Way, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, 37996-4610)

Watching Gray speak to the media and then walk out of Drake Center are the types of success stories that keep medical personnel going in a profession that can take its toll on caregivers.

“Most certainly,” Goddard said. “I really enjoy what I do here. We help an immense number of people. I think hers is front page because she is a very well known and respected athlete in the Cincinnati area and to be associated with a premier program like the Lady Vols that also gains recognition.

“For me, when you meet families like this and people like Amber, who is so inspiring, it really helps each day when you come to work and see people devastated by different neurological problems or trauma and you realize that what you’re doing is helping them get their life back together, and she was definitely an inspiration for our whole team. They were in the press conference and in the back watching and silently cheering her own when she was talking about how much she’s worked and how hard she’s worked and how it’s paying off.”

Dr. Mark Goddard, Amber Gray and Tonya Carter speak at a press conference at Drake Center on Tuesday, the day Gray was released from the facility. (Photo by Michelle Cordy/Drake Center).

Goddard expects that Gray will be ready for class in January, and part of her outpatient rehab will ease that return.

“I think she definitely will be able to return to school,” Goddard said. “We’re going to be making recommendations for some transitional learning programs during the fall months, as well. It’s all transition with these type of recovery programs. We’ll do some cognitive rehabilitation to go with all the exercises and physical rehabilitation that she’s going through.”

Gray attended her first outpatient session on Wednesday, the day after she left Drake Center, and will have sessions three times a week.

“I am working on getting the left side of my body stronger, my leg all the way up to my shoulder,” Gray said.

Gray injured the shoulder in that March session and underwent rehab sessions to try to avoid surgery, as that is the last option in the hopes that the joint will heal over time. But the shoulder continued to cause discomfort and ultimately a decision was made to undergo surgery and a six-month rehab that would have kept her off the court until next January.

“The shoulder is doing well, not a lot of pain and the rehab is going well,” Gray said. “Other than it being a blessing in saving my life it is going well.”

Gray’s voice is steady and her humor is fine-tuned during a phone interview. Her mother, like Summitt, marveled at her psychological state of mind.

“I have never been more proud to be her mother than I have the past six weeks,” Carter said. “She truly is an amazing person. She really is.

“Never once has she asked why. She’s not having a pity party. She’s not saying, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ She’s saying, ‘What’s next? What do I need to do? How do I move forward?’ ”

Gray attributes her approach to her parents and her program.

“I think that’s something that not only have my parents instilled in me but it’s something that I learned in Tennessee,” Gray said. “I went through a lot last year, and you can’t sit there and feel bad for yourself. You have to have the idea that ‘I’m going to push through. I’m going to continue to fight.’ Because life could always be worse.”

In Gray’s case it could have been over.

“So I am going to continue to fight to do the things that I need to do to make sure that I am back on the floor doing the thing I love the most,” she said.

Amber Gray lofts a shot last season against Louisiana Tech. (Photo by Lady Vols Media Relations).

Gray’s ultimate goal is to once again put on her No. 10 Lady Vol jersey and take the court for Tennessee. But she also knows she will survive even if that ultimately does not happen.

“I definitely want to get back to playing, but if something happens and I am not able to then I will go on with other plans but right now that is definitely on my mind and I am going to get back to playing,” Gray said.

“I don’t think it would crush me. Like I said, God has a plan for me, and if his plan is for me not to end up back on the court then that’s what it is. I am still going to continue to pursue my dreams to become a coach. I want to get my story out there to kids because there are a lot younger kids going through worse things than I have gone through, but they don’t have the support that I’ve had from coaches or family members. If I am not able to get back on the floor then I will continue to go to school and get my degree. But at the end of the day I want to get my story out there and coach kids and continue doing what I always planned to do.”

While her daughter was recovering Carter remembered her oft-stated plans to work with children.

“Professionally, Amber has said for many, many years that she wants to be a part of the Special Olympics,” Carter said. “She wants to work with mentally and physically challenged children. Part of the conversation that we had a couple of weeks ago was, ‘You know what, Amberly? Maybe that is part of the blessing. Maybe this is a way for you to have a greater sense of awareness for what some of the challenges are that they face and being more sensitive and also the ability to truly encourage other people based on your story.’ ”

But the future can wait. For now Carter looks at her daughter several times a day and is overwhelmed with emotion.

“The first thing I say every morning, in the middle of the night, every night when I walk up to make sure she’s OK is thank you Lord for sparing her life and thank you for continuing to give her quality of life,” Carter said. “Those are the two things that we pray for all the time.”

Carter won’t ever forget that ride to Drake when her daughter set aside her own pain to comfort her mother.

“Both of Amber’s eyes were completely closed shut,” Carter said. “They were swollen shut. She is sitting in a wheelchair, and she’s hot because the air is not working. She goes, ‘Mom, I am so tired.’ I said, ‘OK, kiddo, just a little while longer.’ I turned away to cry because she’s hurting and there’s nothing I could do to help her. I turned my head to cry thinking that she couldn’t see me.

“And when I turned back around Amber had propped both of her eyes open with her fingers and she’s looking at me and she said, ‘Mom, don’t worry. It’s going to be OK.’ For her to go through what she’s gone through and to still be concerned with other people … it just … every time I think about it … ”

Carter’s voice trails off as the tears come, but she completes her thoughts with a tribute to her daughter.

“She’s received so many accolades academically and athletically, but I have honestly never been prouder to be her mom than I have now,” Carter said. “It’s her strength. It’s her courage. It’s her spirit.”



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