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September 2009 Issue

Amber Gray had plenty of well-wishers as she left Drake Center after three weeks of rehabilitation from surgery for a brain aneurysm. From left to right are occupational therapy student Michelle Johnson, occupational therapist Diana Lee, Gray and physical therapist Kristy Black.
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Doc's Skills Result in Another Shot for Tennessee Basketball Player

Published September 2009

A stunning loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. A grueling practice less than 48 hours later that resulted in a shoulder injury. But for college basketball player Amber Gray, things were about to get even worse.

Gray, a forward on the University of Tennessee (UT) women’s basketball team from Mason, Ohio, would subsequently learn that she had a brain aneurysm that would require a complicated surgical procedure to repair. Months of rehabilitation would lie ahead, with no promise of a successful resumption of her athletic career.

Gray took an important step in her desire to return to competition for the Lady Vols Aug. 11 when she went home from Drake Center after three weeks of rehabilitation—two weeks ahead of the schedule that doctors had envisioned for her.

Gray, who was a high school All-American at Lakota West High School, said at a news conference that she expects to play again.

“Of course I do,” she told a questioner who asked if she planned to return to the court.

Gray had played one season for the Lady Vols, appearing in 27 games as a freshman. That season ended March 22 with a 71-55 loss to Ball State, a bitter pill for a program that had won eight national championships under head coach Pat Summitt. Gray hurt her left rotator cuff during an intense practice two days later. (NCAA rules provide for a limited number of full-team postseason activities until April 15.)

The shoulder injury did not improve despite a rehabilitation program, so Gray underwent elective surgery on July 2 at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Knoxville, Tenn. Post-surgery complications led to the discovery of an unrelated brain aneurysm that began to hemorrhage, causing a stroke.

Gray was flown to University Hospital where Mario Zuccarello, MD, of the UC Neuroscience Institute and Mayfield Clinic, performed a 12.5–hour surgical procedure to clip the aneurysm. Zuccarello is a professor and interim chair of neurosurgery at UC.

Gray was admitted to Drake Center on July 23 for rehabilitation to help build her strength and improve walking and swallowing.

Gray had a “meteoric recovery,” says Mark Goddard, MD, medical director of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Drake and professor and chair of the physical medicine and rehabilitation department at UC. She went home two weeks ahead of schedule, Goddard says, adding that her basketball training probably played a big role in her recovery.

Gray’s mother, Tonya Carter, also spoke at the news conference and paid tribute to the entire Drake staff, saying, “I cannot thank you all enough.” She added that the family was “blessed” to have Zuccarello perform the surgery.

Zuccarello says there were many surgical steps involved with the operation because it involved an arterial high-flow bypass using a radial artery graft. He says he hopes Gray has “many years of success” at UT.

Carter noted that the rotator cuff surgery may have saved her daughter’s life because it led to the discovery of the aneurysm in the best possible surroundings.

“Some people are born with aneurysms, and they don’t find out until it’s too late,” she says.

Goddard says that Gray has some weakness on her left side, but a full recovery is expected.

“She still needs extensive therapy,” he says.

“I am very lucky just to be able to sit here next to my mom,” says Gray, who plans to return to classes in January. In the meantime, she will continue her rehabilitation as an outpatient. 

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