We must have Strong Minds, Dacula Falcons… and Scrap Metal

We Must have Strong Minds

“We must have strong minds, ready to accept facts as they are.” – Harry S Truman

After Dr. Devito told me I could complete my senior year of cheerleading, everything ran smoothly until the day of my surgery… I WISH!

My senior year of high school was trying both physically and mentally. Cheerleading became almost physically unbearable. Ask anyone on my team and they would tell you that practice would not be complete without Ashleigh crying. (In case you haven’t noticed – I cry a lot. I just like to say I’m in touch with my emotions.) However, day after day I showed up, put on my shoes, tied back my hair into a pony tail, applied prescription strength Bengay and a stick on heating pad.

There is one practice in particular that will always replay in my mind. The team was working on basket tosses – kick fulls to be exact. Wendy and Olivia (the other two flyers) could easily complete the skill, but for some reason I couldn’t even though I had done this same basket many times before.

A kick full basket is when the stunt group faces the side and the bases throw the flyer in the air. In the air, the flyer kicks one leg up and then spins one time around before the bases catch her.

After several times of not making it all the way around in the spin, thus being caught on my side, my ribs started pounding with pain. With tears streaming down my face, my coach asked Shelley to step in and try my stunt. While I was happy for the team, I was extremely angry at myself for not being able to do a skill that I knew I could. The only conclusion that I can draw is that since my spine’s curve is in the opposite direction that I was trying to twist, physically, my body could not complete the basket toss any longer.


One of the scariest moments in my cheerleading career:

Jitters are common during warm ups at a competition. Although I had been competing since fifth grade, I always got a little nervous. However, one competition at Duluth High School, my body just felt weird going into warm ups – no other way to describe it…just weird.

On the first mat, the team warmed up tumbling. I went to do a pike-back (a pike jump immediately followed by a back-tuck) and I crashed. I mean, I CRASHED; 100% ate the mat. Since I had been able to do that skill for a while, not landing it was uncommon. Instantly, my nerves when through the roof. After taking a deep breath and giving myself a pep-talk, I lined up to try it again. I felt tremendous relief once I had landed solid on two feet, but I was having a hard time breathing.

Next, my team moved onto the next set of mats allotted for stunting. My stunt group got into position; I went up and did the sequence of skills. While normally my stunts were solid, I was having a hard time not shaking. The cradle was complete and I was standing with two feet on the ground, but my body kept shaking. We moved on to the pyramid where I was one of the top girls. I went up like normal, locked my knee…and crumbled to the floor- again, not common. Now I was getting scared! What was wrong with me?

Suddenly my hands started to tingle. I was determined to compete, so I tried the pyramid again. This time I did not even make it up. By this point I was having an even harder time breathing and the tingling had moved into my arms. My team moved into the holding area and I leaned against the wall with my eyes closed. Over and over I kept telling myself, “two and a half minutes, just do it, just make it through, you have no choice, just do it…”

My coach, who had been my coach for several years, knew something was wrong. She stood next to me and repeatedly asked me if I was okay. The tingling continued in my hands, arms, and had now moved into my face. My breathing was getting even more forced, so finally I broke down and told her “no, I was not okay.” She rushed me to the trainer and sent somebody to get my mom from the bleachers. No matter how hard I tired, I could not get my breathing under control. The trainer and my mom decided that I should go to the hospital.

Since Shelly and I were neighbors and we had to meet our team early, we rode together in my car and our moms rode in Mrs. Wade’s car. So, while I was being looked at by the trainer, Shelley and Aubrey, our friend and teammate, ran to get my car. I still laugh when I remember Shelley telling me this story. They ran all the way to my car and she tried to pull out of the parking spot fast, however she just revved the engine. She said she struggled all the way to the doors since she was used to her Jetta and I drive a RT Stratus. Oh, not to mention that she was still in her six months of not being able to drive anyone other than family without a license. What a comical moment.

At the hospital, I was hooked up to an Electocardiography (EKG) for heart monitoring and given an IV for fluids. After a few hours, my breathing returned to normal and my heart was fine. The doctors said that the scoliosis was causing my sternum to push against my lungs. What happened was just a “freak” accident and the surgery would prevent it from happening again.


I also faced adversity off the cheerleading mats. I’ll never forget the embarrassment I felt one day sitting in Advanced Placement Statistics senior year. I had on my standard uniform – a black shirt to camouflage my deformed back. The shirt I had on that day, although not very far, scooped down in the back. I guess my curvature was causing the scoop to pull to one side. A girl sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder and (loudly) said, “WOW! Your back looks really bad in that shirt!” I wanted nothing more than to crawl under my desk and die. Then, my emotions shifted from embarrassment to anger. How could somebody say that? Did she not know that I did not want any more attention on my back? I felt like the insecure sixth grader all over again. It is easy to tell myself that I shouldn’t care, but when somebody attacks a personal embarrassment – it stings. Time heals all wounds and I’ve learned that some people are just immature.

As soon as the competition cheerleading season ended (6th place in State!), I was finally mentally and physically ready to undergo the spinal fusion.

Dacula Falcons! The BEST by far!

“You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” -Albert Camus

Before I talk about my surgery, I want to take a moment to thank my friends and teammates. There is no way I could have pushed through the pain without them. I would be lying if I said there aren’t days I cry just thinking about how much my senior year cheerleading squad means to me. One of the many presents seniors received that year was a notebook filled with letters and memories from the underclassmen. Days when I am feeling down, I pull it out to read and my spirits are instantly lifted. Here are a few of my favorite notes:

“I’ve always been able to look up to you because you’ve always worked so hard and proven to be so strong.” – AR

“You inspired me to always fight and never give up. You’re so strong fighting through the pain because I know your back is killing you.” – CG

Whatever life throws at you, always remember one thing…DON’T YOU QUIT!!! Remember this as well…we can’t always plan our lives. God has a plan for us and everything will work out the way it is supposed to in the end! Just enjoy life.” – Peace

Even though I don’t believe I was “inspirational”, reading these words always makes me feel like I can keep going. I still read the notes in my notebook and the messages written on my megaphone quite often. So I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who kept me going. I will never forget my senior year – not because of the pain or the surgery – but because of my friends who kept me going.

Performing a Bow and Arrow at State (2006)

P.S. I mentioned above Peace telling me, “DON’T YOU QUIT!” After a particularly tough practice (the kick full basket toss practice I discussed in a previous post) she gave me a card with a poem inside. The poem meant so much to me that I shared it with the team. “DON’T YOU QUIT” became one of our many saying of that year – along with “organic slammer” (trust me, you don’t want to know!) I couldn’t help but cry as I read the poem at the final banquet I would attend as a cheerleader.

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit-
Rest if you must, but DON’T YOU QUIT.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a fellow turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out.
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow-
You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than
It seems to a faint and faltering man;
Often the struggler has given up
When he might have captured the victor’s cup;
And he learned too late when the night came down,
How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out-
The silver tint in the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It might be near when it seems afar;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit-
It’s when things seem worst that you must NOT QUIT!
– Ralph Acosta –

Seniors c/o 007

Varsity Competition at State (2006)

Scrap Metal

“I think God allows obstacles to occur in our life for us to overcome them and grow in life”

– Fritz Smith (my Papa – pronounced in a southern accent… pa-paw)

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta – I will never hear that name without the memories of my surgery flooding my mind. This will be an extremely long post, but I want every detail down – not to bore you, but for me. I know a day will come when these memories will become a mere blur. Also please be patient because this will also be a very choppy post since my memories are choppy.


Granny and Papa came down from Alabama to help my parents before and after surgery. Granny would help take care of me after mom went back to work and Papa was the designated driver. He was also very interested in the process of my spinal fusion due to his own back issues.

We ate at Longhorn Steakhouse for my “last supper” as I like to call it. I did not want the night to end because that would mean the upcoming surgery was real. Up until that night, the surgery was just something we talked about, but it had never really occurred to me that I was having a risky surgery. I was so anxious. I could not fathom finally having a straight back. Mom and I went back to our hotel room in downtown Atlanta; I took a long shower and climbed into bed. Every time I closed my eyes, my mind started racing. Since I could not fall asleep, I turned on the TV and started watching “The Bounty Hunter” – the only option when stuck with hotel cable. Finally, after about five episodes, I got my mind to shut off and sleep came on.

Taken the night before my surgery

I awoke the next morning after only getting a few hours of sleep and decided to take another shower. I hate being dirty and I knew it would be months before I could take a real shower again.

(Jan. 3, 2007)

I wish I would have thought to journal more throughout the day of my surgery because from here my memories really start to fade.

The next thing I remember is going into the pre-op room where I put on my designer hospital gown and extra warm, fluffy socks. It is funny because I do not remember being nervous. I am sure I was, but all I remember is being really anxious for what everything was going to feel like once I woke up. A nurse came in and hooked electrodes to my feet while she explained that she would monitor my functions during the procedure. Then my doctor came in one last time to explain the risks associated with spinal surgery (such as the risk of paralysis). Why do they feel the need to do this right before they put you under? The last thing I remember is taking my “cocktail” to help calm my anxiety before I was taken into the operating room. This is where my pre-op memories end, which is scary since my mom says I continued to talk up until they took me away- none of which I remember.

Scoliosis surgery from the back (posterior surgical approach)
This approach to scoliosis is done through a long incision on the back of the spine – the incision goes the entire length of the thoracic (upper) spine.

  • After making the incision, the muscles are then stripped up off the spine to allow the surgeon access to the bony elements in the spine
  • The spine is then instrumented (the screws are inserted) and the rods are used to reduce the amount of the curvature
  • Bone is then added, which in turn incites a reaction that results in the spine fusing together
  • The fusion process usually takes about 3 to 6 months, and can continue for up to 12 months.

    Source: http://www.spine-health.com

Five hours later…

My eyes are not open, but I can tell I’m in a bright room. I hear a nurse asking me what my pain level was and I, rocking back and forth, cried, “ten, ten, ten…” (for those of you who don’t know, the doctors always ask you to rate your pain – 1 being a tiny amount, 10 being horrible pain). I remember feeling extremely stiff. Imagine being strapped to a board and trying to move – that is what I felt like. The nurse started my medicine and I drifted back into sleep.

Next, I remember opening my eyes for the second time as the doctors wheeled my bed into a private room where my parents were waiting. They used a sheet to lift me off the temporary bed onto the bed in the room. I would have to be rotated, so a blanket would have to be placed under my back to make the rotation process easier. Of course, the doctors did not realize that the sheet was not on my bed until after they had all ready, painfully, moved me. So, back up I went while a nurse put the rotation blanket down. This was probably my dad’s favorite moment because he said that when they lifted me back up, I stuck out my bottom lip (pouting like I was his little girl again). Once the blanket was in place and I was back on the bed, I hit my morphine button and fell back asleep. It’s funny the things I do remember from my hospital stay. Strangely, I can remember the exact layout of my hospital room. Right when you walked in there was a twin hospital bed. Beside that was a chair and then a couch/bed for a parent to sleep on during the night. Then there was a bathroom and a TV on the wall. That was it, my luxurious recovery room. Too bad I did not quite have the movie star experience.

Here are some other things I can remember:

  • After three hours, I was rotated from my side to my back. Three hours later, I was rotated from my back to the other side. After three more hours, I was rotated back onto my back…for months!!! Also, no matter which way I was turned, my body had to be perfectly straight.
  • I remember begging Granny for ice chips and my dad for banana Popsicles
  • How heavy my back felt when I had to sit up (the day after surgery!)
  • The nurses cheering me on as I moved slower than a snail down the hospital halls
  • My mom trying to “wash” my hair with leave in cleaner product, which resulted in even more grease
  • My belly getting extremely bloated (like I was expecting a baby)

  • Watching – well, sleeping- through Disney movies – the only selection when you’re at a children’s hospital
  • The nurses guessing how many inches I gained after straightening my spine
  • The nurses clapping when I discovered I grew TWO inches!
  • Having no idea if it was day or night/ who was in my room (I’ve been told I had many visitors… sorry that I have no idea who!)

Even though I spent five days in the hospital, that is pretty much all I can remember. When I was finally recovered enough to go home, I was sent on my way to finish the recovery process. Little did I know, going home was not going to be as great as I thought.

It's amazing what five hours and some metal can do!



2 thoughts on “We must have Strong Minds, Dacula Falcons… and Scrap Metal

  1. hi I just got a spinal fusion July 28th 2010 and I’m in my fourth month of recovery. I am also a cheerleader and a flyer for my high school varsity team. Have you cheered since surgery? and how are you doing now?

  2. Hi Ashleigh,
    My 16 year old daughter has scoliosis. The thoracic curve is 64%. We are considering surgery after trying many methods to reduce her curve non-surgically. I would like to know more about your recovery, how you are doing now and if after all is said and done…. would you do it again or not? Please email me at Nora.Lamar@yahoo.com. My husband and I are searching all options right now and want to make the best choice.
    Thanks, Nora Lamar

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