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Going for Gold

If a heart can literally swell, then Linda Hoskins’ heart did just that at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. Before Emily Hoskins and her teammates had even emerged onto the basketball court in their U.S. team uniforms, the proud mother was already crying. Almost 22 years before this moment, Emily had been born paralyzed, her spine severed by a series of tumors.

The first newborn

As her third trimester dwindled toward the due date, Linda and her husband, Greg, were ecstatic about the birth of their first child. Linda had experienced a textbook-perfect pregnancy, and it wasn’t until Emily emerged January 30, 1983, that her parents knew all was not right. Emily had been born with neuroblastoma, a cancer that affects the sympathetic nervous system. The tumors had severed her spine and damaged the nerves in her legs, causing paralysis from the waist down.

At 3 days old, Emily traveled with her father from Illinois to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She was the first newborn ever accepted at St. Jude.

“They had to keep her in the ICU because the hospital wasn’t set up for infants,” says Linda. When she arrived at St. Jude after recovering from her Caesarian section, Linda was met with cries of, “You’re the baby’s mother!”

“They all knew Emily,” Linda recalls. “We were taken care of from the very start.”

Soon Emily was known for more than just being the hospital’s youngest patient. If a newborn can exude confidence and optimism, Emily did. Even when she was sick from chemotherapy, she smiled and gurgled, shamelessly flirting with her parents, the doctors and the nurses.

“I would never wish cancer on a newborn—or her parents—but I think it was easier on us because Emily couldn’t talk or remember what she had to go through,” says Linda. “Also, our St. Jude doctors always talked about the future. ‘This is the plan,’ they’d say. ‘When Emily is 1 … When Emily goes to school … When Emily has kids …’ That made all the difference as we looked down at our sick little girl.” Ironically, Emily was fortunate that her cancer was caught at birth since infants with neuroblastoma have a much higher chance of cure than older children.

Linda and Greg knew that Emily would have challenges because of her paralysis, but they soon realized they were blessed to have their daughter alive and recovering. Emily endured chemotherapy, surgery, several serious infections and a blood transfusion.

She was pronounced cancer free at age 7. However, since Emily was St. Jude’s “first baby,” she returned yearly to St. Jude until she was 18 “so they could study me,” Emily explains. Linda says that giving back to St. Jude this way in hopes of helping others was worth any sacrifice the family had to make.

Embracing challenges

In fifth grade, Emily transitioned from braces and a walker to a wheelchair. “She wanted to be able to go faster,” says her mother. Because of the location of the break in her spine, Emily does not have the use of her back or abdominal muscles. But this, like every other challenge in Emily’s life, has not interfered with her goals.

“If you tell Emily she can’t do something due to physical ability, she will find a way to do it,” says Linda. “Tell her something will be too hard, and—presto—you have given her a personal challenge, and she will prove you wrong.”

“I don’t see myself as different so I don’t think anybody else should treat me that way,” says Emily. “If they do, I tend to let it roll off my back. And anyway, I am no different. I’m just Emily.”

True love

Although Emily’s life had been anything but dull, her world really opened up at 14 when she discovered wheelchair basketball. It was love at first try. She started playing on a regional team a few hours’ drive from home. Then she studied diligently in community college to gain admission to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, home of the nation’s top wheelchair basketball program.

“I remember thinking that I could’ve been playing all those years before,” says Emily. “As far as sports go, basketball is my true love.”

Emily and her teammates couldn’t be closer.

“We share everything and have so much in common,” explains Emily, now a senior. “When you meet someone in a chair, the details of how they got there are always your first questions. And man, you hear some crazy stories! Two friends got hit by trains. Another was run over by a lawnmower when she was 3. Another fell mountain climbing and broke her back. So I say, ‘Oh, my story is boring: Survived cancer; nothing too exciting there.’”

Although she may not admit it, Emily knows that surviving cancer and becoming an independent, driven young woman is nothing short of exciting. Especially when it comes to basketball.

Bound for Athens

“The first thing that strikes me about Emily is her absolute pure and full love of life,” says Mike Frogley, University of Illinois Women’s Wheelchair Basketball coach. “Her energy and vitality seem boundless; she lights fires under those around her. As a teammate, she is completely unselfish. She does whatever the team needs. The fact that she is willing and eager to play lots of different positions on the team both offensively and defensively is a testament to the kind of smart and generous player she is.”

Emily was determined from the first. “She didn’t start basketball being a naturally good athlete,” her mom recalls. “She had to work very hard for a long time to get good. It took her months before she could make a basket.”

When Emily was told that she would be part of the 12-person team traveling to Athens to compete in the 2004 Paralympics, she could hardly contain herself. She says she didn’t even care if she got to play; it was all about the team doing its best.

A wheelchair basketball team must always have 14 “points” on the floor, a classification system calculated by the levels of disability. For instance, Emily is a 1.0, the lowest class, since she has no use of her back or abdominal muscles. A 4.5 would be a player who may be able to walk but has very weak knees so is still eligible to play.

“Emily has an awesome personality,” says Patty Cisneros, Emily’s teammate in Athens and former college roommate. “She is never in a bad mood, and I mean never. She just spreads good energy around. She is like this on and off the court.”

Patty lost the use of her legs in a car accident at age 19. “I have learned a lot from Emily about being disabled,” Patty says. “You can choose to be closed and insecure, or out there. Emily is definitely out there.”

The friends enjoy going to concerts together. “Emily is incredibly comfortable with who she is. Her aura shouts, ‘There is nothing wrong with me!’ I never would have dreamed of dancing in my chair at a concert if it hadn’t been for Emily."

Bringing home the gold

When the U.S. Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team mounted the highest platform at the Paralympics award ceremony, everyone cried but Emily. Emily’s parents and her three grandparents cheered from the stands. Twenty-one years had passed since Emily was born in distress: a lifetime; a moment.

Thinking back to that day in Athens, Emily’s voice rises with excitement. “Oh, man! They come through and shake your hand and kiss you on both cheeks. They give you flowers and put one of those olive wreaths on your head, then put the gold medal around your neck. Then they raise the three flags of the countries who won gold, silver and bronze. They played our national anthem, since we won the gold,” she says.

“Everyone else was crying, but I couldn’t stop smiling. My teeth hurt by the end.”

Reprinted from spring 2005 Promise magazine

 

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