Editor’s note: Dubuque native Martha Hanley,60, of Cedar Rapids is a family navigator at Child Health Specialty Clinics in Iowa City.
By Martha Hanley, community contributor
CEDAR RAPIDS - Former Notre Dame swimmer Haley Scott DeMaria was in a horrific bus accident in 1992 that broke her spine, subjected her to multiple, life-threatening surgeries and left her with residual health concerns.
It also left two of her teammates dead.
Yet, she said, “I am the luckiest and most blessed person in the world.”
DeMaria will speak about that perspective during three appearances in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, talking at 9 a.m. at Xavier High School, 12:30 p.m. at Regis Middle School and 6:30 p.m. at St. Pius X Church. All are free and open to the public, and a light supper and child care will be provided at St. Pius.
DeMaria, an Arizona state swim champion as a prep, said everything she needed to recover came from her sport — setting goals, teamwork, commitment, hard work, practice and mental toughness.
“Had I not been a swimmer,” she said, “the outcome would have been much different.”
Besides her athletic training, she credits superb medical care in her healing — and the power of prayer.
“There are forces out there that are hard to explain,” she said.
Surgeons tried four times to straighten her spine, but it refused to cooperate. During the fifth surgery, it suddenly, inexplicably, popped into place.
Within a year of the accident, she returned to swimming.
That would have been hard to believe after that snowy night of Jan. 24, 1992, when she and her Notre Dame teammates were returning to South Bend, Ind., after a competition in the Chicago area. Their bus skidded on ice, slid down an embankment, hit a concrete culvert and rolled over.
Fellow freshmen Meghan Beeler and Colleen Hipp were thrown from the bus and killed when the bus landed on them. DeMaria bounced around inside the bus and ended up against a window that popped open. She pulled herself out of the window and lied in the snow for an hour.
She eventually had surgery at South Bend Memorial Hospital before her parents could arrive from Phoenix. During the surgery, steel rods were inserted in her back. She was told if she ever hoped to walk again, some movement in her lower extremities would have to come within 48 hours of the injury.
Forty-eight hours came and went with no feeling. Five days later, she was able to wiggle her big toe. To the amazement of her doctors, she started to come back. Within weeks, she was using a walker, then a cane to walk.
She went home to Phoenix for spring break, then returned to Notre Dame in a torso cast to finish the semester. When her cast was removed during the summer of 1992, she discovered one of the rods had poked through her back. She was whisked to San Diego for three more surgeries.
All summer, she was flat on her back healing. In the fall, she returned to Notre Dame and eventually returned to swimming.
Today, she swims occasionally, but mostly is mom to sons James (11) and Edward (9). She and her husband, Jamie, a Notre Dame classmate, live in Annapolis, Md.
She started writing her story years ago, sharing it privately. In 2008, she published her book, “What Though the Odds: Haley Scott’s Journey of Faith and Triumph.” Shortly afterward, she was invited to speak to a middle-school class who had read the book as an assignment. Since, she averages four or five speaking engagements a month.
Her motivation for writing the book was “my understanding that I am healed and healthy and need to do something positive” with her experience. Her object in speaking is to give hope.
“It helps me make meaning of what I went through,” she said. “If I can help someone going through a tough time, to give them some perspective on what they’re dealing with.”
She said the book and the speaking engagements are “my way of thanking all the people who helped me. My mom used to keep lists of all the people we needed to thank. We couldn’t keep up. I want my children see me live a life of gratitude.”
Of course, DeMaria wishes the accident never happened, but she recognizes that it made her who she is today.
“Tragedy will happen to everyone,” she said. “The choice is, how do we react? How do we be OK with it?
“I can’t imagine a better life. It’s a great way to go through life, so appreciative.”
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