July 6, 2010

By Amy Farnum

It was a carefree summer day last July as Claire Cordua headed to the beach with her boyfriend near her hometown of San Diego, Calif. But, as she drove down the road, that all quickly changed for the rising freshman women's volleyball player that would soon be attending Rhodes College.

Cordua was a migraine headache sufferer, like her mother, so when the pain came on that day she was not alarmed. But, then, her vision got blurry and the left side of her body went numb. She really doesn't remember what happened after that.

"My boyfriend told me I lost control of the car and went limp in the seat," said Cordua. "He had to reach over and steer the car out of oncoming traffic."

After stopping the car safely in the median, he called 911 and told the operator that Cordua was having a stroke.

"They didn't think I was (having a stroke) because I was only 18, and normally 18-year-olds don't have strokes," said Cordua. "Luckily, the fire station was right down the street and the firemen came to the car. My face was drooping, my hand wouldn't move, my leg wouldn't move. They took me to the hospital immediately."

Doctors first tried to treat the stroke with clot-busting medications, but when the medications did not work, doctors turned to Dr. Giuseppe Ammirati, an expert in stroke treatment, who had not even started his first day at the hospital.

Using X-rays and a micro-catheter, Ammirati was able to send clot-busting drugs directly into the brain to break up the clot - something that at one time would have needed major brain surgery.

"I remember going back to my bed after the first surgery and everything was moving again, which was a huge deal that soon after a stroke," said Cordua.

Because of the quick treatment Cordua escaped the damaging effects of the stroke, although she did need to undergo surgery the next day to remove a brain aneurysm that was caused from all the pressure built up in her head.

After the initial scares, the long road to recovery began - not an easy task for an active student-athlete.

"I was in the hospital for two weeks and for the first week I had to stay in bed - I couldn't walk," said Cordua. "I had to just sit there."

While her brain recovered, Cordua's muscles weakened.

"I knew how to walk, but after sitting in bed for a week, my muscles just felt like they had shrunken up," said Cordua. "I was having trouble walking properly and if I turned too fast I would get dizzy. When I went home, just showering was tough. I would have to nap afterwards because I felt really weak. I had to put time limits on everything."

Shortly after the incident, Rhodes head coach Samantha Lambert visited Cordua while on a recruiting trip for another player, and was amazed that the young woman was doing so well.

"When I saw her a few weeks after the stroke, I would have never have know anything had happened," said Cordua. "Everything was the same except when she would get really tired her lip drooped a little bit."

The doctors advised Cordua delay starting college until the spring to rest her brain, and give her body time to regain its' muscle memory before enduring the stress of starting college and playing volleyball on the campus in Memphis, Tenn. -- thousands of miles from home.

"She came in this spring and made huge strides on the court," said Lambert. "She had been doing some physical rehabilitation, but not out playing volleyball. When I tested her early on, I told her it was not going to be where she wanted to be, but need to look at the progress she'll make over the course of spring practice. She worked hard and wanted to come in the gym every chance she could."

"The hardest part was that I knew how well I could play volleyball before the stroke, and my body wouldn't allow me to play at that level anymore," said Cordua. "I couldn't jump as high or hit as hard. I had to go backwards before I progressed."

Cordua's teammates and Lambert were supportive throughout her comeback, and helped her through many frustrating times during spring practice.

"The first time we were playing six-on-six, she got a little freaked out and had that deer-in-the-headlights looked," said Lambert. "I could see the tears coming, and I told her to take a deep breath."

"Coach Sam (Lambert) really pushed me, especially with weight lifting getting me back to where I used to be," said Cordua. "I talked to her about how I was feeling and what was wrong, and she gave me a workout that really helped. By the end of spring practice I got back to where I had been before the stroke."

Cordua continues to work on her strength and conditioning this summer, along with playing pick-up volleyball with her former high school and club teammates. She is anxiously awaiting the start of preseason practice on August 20, and one day soon wearing the Rhodes College jersey.

"Playing in the spring isn't the same as wearing the jersey and playing in tournaments," said Cordua. "I'm really excited to start playing in the fall."

But, for now, Cordua is back to enjoying those carefree summer days.