As Pam Surano left mass one day last summer, her phone started ringing. She glanced down and saw her daughter, Mary Maloney, 13, was calling. But she let it go to voicemail as she reflected on the service and gazed at the church. Until Mary called again. And again. Surano picked up and immediately knew something was wrong.
“Mary’s voice was different,” Surano, 51, a reporter at KDKA in Pittsburgh, told TODAY. “She said she had an accident and ‘I can’t move my legs.’”
A tumble gone wrong
On Aug. 30, 2020, Mary was jumping on a trampoline, doing flips.
“She’s very acrobatic, extremely athletic. She does every sport imaginable,” Surano said.
Then she landed oddly on her head and neck. It felt like she tweaked something so she went into the house and sat down to relax. But she still felt lingering pain so she took a warm bath, thinking the water might soothe her muscles. It didn’t.
“She had a harder time getting out of the bath,” Surano explained. “It increasingly felt worse.”
After laying on the bed for a few minutes, Mary realized she couldn’t move and called for her dad. He placed her in the car and drove her to the hospital where Surano met them.
“They put her in a wheelchair. She threw up all over herself and fell forward like she lost all ability to sit up,” she said. “From then, it was just a series of nightmares.”
Doctors performed a CT scan and an MRI to determine what had happened. At first, they saw nothing.
“They were completely perplexed because it showed everything perfect and normal from the brain to the spinal cord,” Surano said. “There was not a contusion, not a blood bleed, not a fracture, nothing was wrong."
They treated her with blood pressure medicine and steroids and two days later she underwent the scans again.
“That’s when it showed the spinal stroke,” Surano said. “(In) the area that controls the legs and the feet.”
She spent six days in the intensive care unit of UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and then went to in-patient rehabilitation. Mary was paralyzed from her mid-chest down and since then the now 14-year-old has been involved in several other rehabilitation programs, including a stay at Frazier Rehabilitation Institute in Lexington, Kentucky. In Pittsburgh, she's worked with several trainers, including former NFL player Jon Kolb, for aqua therapy and physical therapy.
“You have to crawl before you walk and that’s what she’s doing now. Crawling is hard and she can do it,” Surano said. “It is a huge indicator of her recovery. Because she was paralyzed from the middle of her chest to her toes. She has what they consider top down recovery happening. So her abdominal flexors are activating, which is great because they were formerly paralyzed.”
Mary's strong faith in God and an upbeat mindset has helped her.
“They also say that her positive attitude, incredible spirit, her hard work is powerful and all of that is going to lend itself to the healing process,” Surano said. “We’ve been overwhelmed with prayers that have turned the tide for us.”
Surano has become an unexpected advocate for novel methods of neurological rehabilitation and hopes to bring a new facility to Pittsburgh.
“Everyone knows somebody in a wheelchair whether they have a spinal cord injury or not. Most cities are lacking a neuro recovery center,” Surano said. “It’s as though we’re leaving a whole segment of the population behind.”
'Never advocate anyone use the trampoline'
While Mary wants people to how grateful she feels for the support she’s received, her mom says that she hopes people understand that trampolines can be dangerous.
“I don’t want to finger point or blame anybody, certainly not Mary or anybody else, but I would never advocate anyone use the trampoline,” she said. “I almost wonder, and I’m certainly not a medical expert, if the trajectory of the body, it’s just not meant to do that.”
Broken bones, concussions, head and neck injuries and sprains can commonly happen when children use trampolines. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2016 there were approximately 120,000 hospital emergency room-treated injuries associated with trampolines.
“Injuries can occur from trampolines, (children) trying stunts on them, landing the wrong way, falling off the trampoline,” Meaghan Crawley, an injury prevention specialist at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is not involved with Mary’s care, told TODAY.
She recommends that parents follow all instructions that come with trampolines and only allow one child on it at a time to increase their safety.
“If you do have a trampoline at your home you need to make sure if you have a kid on it that there's adult supervision,” she said. “Make sure that they're not doing any sort of somersaults or flips or anything that increases the likelihood of them coming down wrong on their head or neck.”
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and CPSC offer a few additional safety precautions:
- No kids under 6 years old should use a trampoline.
- Remove ladders after use to prevent young children from jumping unsupervised.
- Place the trampoline away from trees and other structures.
- Do not rely on safety nets.
- Check equipment regularly for deterioration or damage.
- Do not use the trampoline without shock-absorbing pads that completely cover its springs, hooks and frame.
- When purchasing a trampoline, ensure that the product meets current safety standards and that the product has not been recalled.
Mary has good days and hard days. Sometimes, she asks her mom to take a break and she plays with her 4-month-old puppy or has sleepovers or shopping trips with friends.
“The puppy can jump into Mary’s wheelchair. He even runs alongside of her,” she said. “He learned to pull the leash so when she’s in the wheelchair, he can pull her.”
People can follow Mary's journey on her website, Miracles for Mary.
“Mary said, ‘I want to walk on the beach,’” Surano said. “We've asked everybody to please pray and keep that vision in their heart because we truly believe that God works by us agreeing with one another and us envisioning what we want.”
Surano expects Mary to thrive because of the support she’s received.
“I really just feel that Mary is going to have a miracle,” Surano said. “All this love that we have received in our hearts, it's spilling out. We just cannot wait to give it all back.”
This story was updated on July 13, 2021 to reflect Mary's progress.