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Devastating accident hasn’t derailed plans for medical school

Left, recovering from a body-surfing accident that damaged her spinal cord, Suzy Kim undergoes physical therapy that includes the use of electrodes to exercise her leg muscles.

This spring, while most students are trying hard to get away from school, Suzy Kim is working like crazy to get back in.

Last September, Kim was in school – in the USC School of Medicine, to be exact. She had transferred as a third year from her program at Chicago Medical School. Her mother, who lived in Irvine and had been diagnosed with stomach cancer a few years back, was not doing well. In order to live at home, Kim would hit the freeway by 4:30 in the morning to make it to LAC+USC medical center in time for rounds.

That grueling schedule was manageable for Kim, who had spent years honing her discipline as a marathon runner and triathlete.

She needs all that discipline and more than a little grit to keep her going now. Kim is in rehabilitative therapy eight hours a day with the goal of returning to the School of Medicine this summer. Then she faces one of her greatest challenges: completing medical school in a wheelchair.

On November 2, the vivacious medical student was bodysurfing in Laguna – something she had done routinely during her youth in Laguna Hills. Suddenly, in what she now calls a fluke accident, “there was a really strong undertow, a wave took me the wrong way and I smashed into a shallow sand bar.” Head first.

“I knew I was paralyzed from the moment I heard my head hit the sand,” she recalled. “I tried to kick and couldn’t. I couldn’t move my arms. I thought I was going to drown.” Fortunately her boyfriend recognized something wasn’t right and pulled her out of the water.

Kim was airlifted from the beach to a local hospital, where she went immediately into surgery. The diagnosis was straightforward: a bruised spinal cord at C7, the last vertebrae in the neck. The prognosis was a lot murkier. “Statistically speaking, doctors told me I would not walk again. They can’t tell you how you’ll recover because everyone recovers differently,” she said, noting it can take anywhere from one to five years for spinal swelling to reduce. “I’ve met a couple of people with the same injury and they all have different recoveries.”

Kim considers herself one of the lucky ones as far as spinal injuries go. “My spinal cord wasn’t severed,” she acknowledged. “I can use my hands, fingers and upper body and I have some sensation in my feet. I’ve regained some motor skills and a little voluntary function of my back and abdominal muscles. These are really good signs towards recovery.”

Still, she says, in the past seven months there have been many dark days. Her mother died in December, “and I have been dealing with so much that I haven’t really been able to adjust to that completely.” Hassles with insurance companies and financial difficulties have created other problems: for six months she had to use a borrowed wheelchair that didn’t fit properly and gave her scoliosis. She’s also struggling to pay for the physical therapy that doctors tell her is key to her recovery.

“This is a nightmare I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” she said.

As a physician-in-training, however, she has also used the experience to her advantage. “I’ve learned a lot about being paralyzed,” she said. “Most people don’t realize that if you’re paralyzed you lose bowel and bladder control, you have bladder infections and skin problems. I’m learning a lot of medicine in my time away from medicine, and this experience has made me very interested in rehabilitation medicine.”

With characteristic determination, Kim is planning her return to medical school while working extraordinarily hard to walk again. Kim is also a recipient of the Swim with Mike Program that helps physically challeneged athletes pursue degrees at USC.

Technically she is on medical leave at USC, and she met recently with Peter Katsufrakis, associate dean of student affairs, and Erin Quinn, associate dean for women and disabled issues, to work out a schedule of rotations that would save the more difficult services, like surgery and obstetrics, for later in the year when she is farther along with her recovery. She would move onto campus to be closer to her work here.

“There was a student before at USC, Marianne Grew-Sinclair, who did all four years in a wheelchair, and she paved the way for me,” Kim said. “I really believe I’ll be walking and running and all the things I did before. In the meantime, my brain’s still working so there’s no reason not to come back and finish my degree.”

Katsufrakis agrees. “Despite the obstacles that she will have to overcome to complete her medical training, I have no doubt Suzy can do it,” he said. “She’ll bring insight and sensitivity to her practice of medicine.”

Until she returns, Kim is working five days a week, eight hours a day at a rehabilitation center in Tustin, using aggressive therapies like electromagnetic muscle stimulation to augment her recovery. She expects to be fitted for leg braces in a few weeks, and is anxious to learn to stand.

There is no question, she says, that her athletic training and the care she had taken with herself physically before the accident is helping with her recovery. So is the support she has received from family, boyfriend and the friends who have established an account to help Kim pay for the therapy that is critical to her recovery.

“I can’t imagine making it through without them,” she said.

Even her mother’s example is helping, she said. “I am the person I am today because of my mother. Seeing her fight to the end and not give up in times of struggle was inspiring,” said Kim, who was born in South Korea. “When things look bleak, when I don’t feel like I can make it, my memory of her reminds me that I’ve got to make the most of the situation.

“I guess not getting back on my feet has never been an option,” she allowed. “That’s what helps me get through. I just have to take it day by day. It’ll be baby steps all the way. I’ve finally taken in that I won’t wake up tomorrow and be walking. As long as in the end I can get back on my feet, it’ll be worth the wait.”

Devastating accident hasn’t derailed plans for medical school

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