The Toronto Raptors’ meek exit in the first round of the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs was painful for its countless loyal fans.
For ardent supporter Sue Stewart, the hurt was minimal compared to the suffering and challenges she has endured in the last decade.
A member of the national basketball team at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Stewart’s life changed dramatically on April 8, 2005 when she slipped and struck her head in a hotel shower in Ohio, where she was coaching a club team.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Stewart wrote in her autobiography, Unbreakable, released last week. “I was standing under the shower with both palms pressed flat against the wall in front of me. The water felt divine. I stood there for a few minutes as my thoughts subconsciously drifted in the refreshing sensation of the water falling on my head and shoulders. I am not sure why, but I suddenly turned my head to the right. Wham. The side of my head slammed into the metal showerhead beside me. There was no blood, just a sharp pain that ran throughout my entire body.”
After bouts of vomiting, grogginess and discomfort, Stewart – who was scheduled to do a second interview for a Christian education minister position in Ohio – fell five days later in a bathroom and hit her head on the metal soap dish that was affixed to the wall of the shower.
Rushed to hospital by ambulance, she slipped into a coma and was diagnosed with a badly damaged brain stem.
“My brain was bleeding and my parents were told by doctors that I could die if they operated and if they let it continue to bleed, I could die also,” she said.
Read her last rites, Stewart bounced back remarkably to the point that after a month in a Canton hospital, she was stable enough to be flown back by air ambulance to the Greater Toronto Area.
Stewart was encouraged to write the book by family members and nurses who took care of her during the long recovery and rehabilitation.
“This was almost seven years in the making and I just wanted to open up and let people know about my journey in the last 10 years,” she said. “I had to learn how to walk, talk, chew gum, eat and dress myself. These are things you take for granted until something like this happens. I had to start all over again and that was very difficult.”
The rehabilitation has been gruelling and frustrating to the point where Stewart was reduced to tears.
“In a session with my physical therapist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, I was being taught how to walk up and down the stairs in a two-step pattern,” she said. “The first time I reached the bottom, I started to cry because it was so tedious and hard. Before the accident, I went up and down stairs without thinking. Now, I had to focus and think before making each step in order to get the pattern right. That was so frustrating.”
Stewart is grateful for the support from family, friends and members of Praise Cathedral Worship Centre, which she has attended for the last 17 years.
“Without that phenomenal support, I don’t know how I would have made it this far,” she said. “They motivated me to keep going and that helped a lot.”
Bishop Lennox Walker, the church’s senior pastor, wrote the book’s foreword.
“Imagine being at the pinnacle of your career doing what you do best and doing it at the highest level, ignoring God’s call on your life,” he said. “Then when it becomes difficult and you start to worry about what to do next, God begins to open doors for you. Then once you have achieved what you have been working towards all your life, suddenly you experience a bad accident that quickly spirals into slurred speech, a coma and last rites being delivered at your bedside. This, in essence, is just a short episode of Sue’s testimony. When everyone else may have lost hope, Sue did not give up on God. Sue had to figure out how to walk and talk again. Her faith was tested.”
Despite her physical challenges, Stewart has had brief stints with Ryerson University and the University of Toronto as an assistant coach.
She feels she’s ready for full-time employment.
“I have done and continue to do a lot of volunteer work and while I enjoy giving, I want to be employed,” the Mississauga Sports Council volunteer and Level Three basketball coach said. “I know I have a lot to give whether as a coach or sports administrator and I desperately want to be a contributing member of society.
“My inability to successfully reintegrate into the workforce has been humbling, especially when I consider the fact that I have become somewhat of a hostage to my condition in other people’s eyes. I dream of imparting the knowledge and experience I have amassed into the lives of youth who aspire to reach a level of greatness. I dream of one day been given the chance to do what I know I can do in a professional environment to affect change not just as a volunteer but as a valued employee.”
The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Winston and Nona Stewart, who arrived in Canada in 1966, Stewart was the top high school basketball player in Mississauga in 1988. She also played soccer and competed in the long jump and the 400-metre events at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations level successfully that she was voted Streetsville Secondary School’s “Athlete of the Year” from 1985 to 1988.
The outstanding guard led Laurentian University to back-to-back national titles and five provincial championships, represented Canada at the Pan Am Games in Cuba and the World Student Games in Sheffield in 1991, was named the best female basketball player in the country a year later and was an Olympian in 1996.
After failed attempts to crack a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) line-up, Stewart went on Athletes in Action retreats to Haiti and Zambia, was baptized in Perth, Australia and was a graduate assistant with the women’s basketball team coaching staff at Malone University in Canton, Ohio when her world was turned upside down 10 years ago.
Unbreakable is available on Amazon or through Stewart who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.