Beating the odds: Still recovering, Summerville girl returns to activities after head injury a year ago

Suzy Hilton of Summerville is a homebound freshman who on Feb. 13, 2010, was struck by a falling tree branch that snapped against the weight of snow. The accident severely damaged her skull and brain, causing chronic pain in her head, neck and back. She said she's also been dealing with short-term memory loss and has cognitive issues.

Almar Flotildes

Many remember the day well. Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010, was that once-in-a-blue-moon day when snow settled across the Lowcountry, covering it in white. Fifteen-year-old Suzy Hilton, however, can't remember it all.

Then 14, Suzy was like any average teenager who hardly ever gets to see snow. She was so ecstatic that about 11 p.m. Friday, when the snow had finally piled up about half a foot high, she woke her mom, Natalie Hilton, and pulled her outside.

Together, they made snow angels along Summerville's Main Street and skipped through their neighborhood singing songs from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," which the bubbly eighth-grader had been rehearsing for her musical at Alston Middle School.

In the morning, Suzy and her 17-year-old brother, Sloan, got up early and faced off in a snowball fight. About 8:30 a.m., Sloan left to go inside and check on breakfast while Suzy started work on a snowman. That's the last she remembers about the day.

Suzy's family tells her a 20-foot-long pine tree limb buckled against the weight of the snow and snapped. The branch fell from the height of a telephone pole onto Suzy's head.

"I barely started breakfast, when I heard my son screaming, his voice cracking, 'Mom, get out here now. It's bad,' " her mother recalled.

Hilton, a nurse at Alston Middle, ran up to her daughter and saw her sprawled out on the ground. Suzy began having a seizure, but Hilton just froze.

"I couldn't deal with it," she said. "I don't know -- something inside me just shut down."

So her husband, Timothy Hilton, leaped past her while she called 911. By the time Natalie Hilton hung up, she could hear sirens coming toward her. EMS took Suzy and her father to the Medical University of South Carolina, and her mother and Sloan followed.

"Once we got there to the emergency room, there was a priest waiting for us, and he stayed with us," Natalie Hilton said. "I didn't know until weeks later why he was there, but they didn't think she was going to make it."

The fighter

Suzy had been unconscious for several hours in the hospital before waking up for a few, short minutes, frightened and disoriented.

"I was initially screaming, wondering why I was in the hospital," Suzy said. "I had no idea. ... I felt really scared."

Suzy faded in and out of consciousness for the first couple of days. Doctors said she suffered skull fractures at the base of her skull, a blood clot on her brain behind her left ear and, on the second day, had a hemorrhage in the center of her brain.

On the outside, Suzy had scratches and bruises, but otherwise, a stranger could never tell something was wrong inside her head. She was in the hospital for a week before she came home, but still then, no one knew how her injuries would affect her day-to-day life.

Relying on a wheelchair and wearing a back brace for a couple of weeks, Suzy underwent physical therapy to regain her mobility. It was a strenuous experience, but there was one shining day to look forward to, she said.

Besides being the typical teenage girl who would almost always be on the phone or hanging out with her friends, Suzy also was an active athlete as well as a budding ballerina and soccer player. Acting was another one of her passions, she said.

The musical she had been preparing for was coming up in April, just seven weeks after the accident. Suzy already had learned the first two acts of the play before the accident, but afterward, she had forgotten all of her lines.

She had landed the first-string part of Grandpa Joe in the "Willy Wonka" musical, so while continuing her physical therapy to regain her mobility, she went back to school rehearsals three weeks after the accident and relearned her lines. A month later, Suzy ended up completing the play in front of an audience -- music, choreography and all -- with some literal support from her co-actors. She clung to Charlie Bucket a lot of the time, she said.

"I did the performance flawlessly, is what other people said," Suzy said. "I really felt proud of myself. I felt like I made a really big accomplishment in my life. I hate to give up on things.

"A tree can't stop me when it falls on my head," she added with a little laugh.

"She's a fighter," her mother said. "And I didn't know she had it in her. She's a very determined little girl."

A tiger

Suzy had a whole new life to deal with after the accident. She was homebound through the end of middle school. And with recommendations from brain specialists in New York, Suzy began her freshman year at Ashley Ridge High on abbreviated days, going to school only a few times a week to better deal with the stress.

Just after the new year, Suzy went completely homebound mainly because she started an active phase of her recovery, her mother said. But also, she couldn't focus in the classroom. Suzy said she was having processing problems that left her confused a lot of the time.

Today, Suzy said she continues to have problems processing thoughts as well as having short-term memory loss, so she needs more time to plan out her activities, such as chores as simple as what to wear or taking out her dog.

Suzy also has sensory problems where she can't smell or taste things and sometimes even forgets to eat. Added to that, Suzy also has headaches and back and neck pain. She's been seeing therapists for both her cognitive problems and her pain, and going to a chiropractor in November three times a week has helped a lot, she said.

"I've got neuro-fatigue," Suzy added. "Which is if I work too hard one day, I would go to sleep for a whole other day."

Suzy hopes to go back to school in March on abbreviated days and maybe back full time in the fall. She's still in line to graduate on time, and she can't wait, she said, because her dream is to be a Clemson Tiger like her big sister, Stephanie. Suzy's experiences over the year have even influenced her goals to start her own practice as a pediatric physical therapist.

Overall, Suzy said her pain has been something she's learned to manage and that though she has occasions she feels sad to not be a normal teenager, most of the time, she's still as happy-go-lucky as before the accident.

"I've been doing pretty good," Suzy said. "Doctors never thought I'd do this great."

On the path that she's on now, doctors tell her she might return to normal in another year. However, they add, there's more than a chance, judging by cases of patients with similar injuries, that she'll always carry the pain with her.

"Hopefully, it'll all go away, but I kind of have a feeling that it's going to be with me a few years," she said.

But Suzy already has defied the odds. Doctors told her family at the start that she might never be the same person even if she did survive the accident.

"But I'm pretty much the same person," Suzy said.

Reach Almar Flotildes at 937-5719.