For what Spring Lake senior Emily Blahnik has experienced over the past year, it would seem like that infectious attitude on the exterior has to be masking a lot of hurt and anguish she’s experienced on the inside.
During the evening of Aug. 27 last year, Blahnik’s mother, Brenda, was working with a maintenance crew inside the Spring Lake Community Fitness and Aquatic Center. She was washing windows in the facility when the mechanical lift from which she was working tipped over and fell onto the cement below in the pool area.
Blahnik struck her head during the fall, causing a skull fracture and brain trauma. She also suffered spinal cord injures when a bar on the lift compressed her spine during the fall. Doctors at Spectrum Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids were able to successfully lift the compression and fuse her vertebrae during surgery.
Another surgery the following day at Spectrum placed pins in her spine to help it straighten. Two days later, a section of her skull was removed to relieve pressure from swelling on her brain.
Blahnik was placed into a chemically induced coma for about two and a half weeks, while her husband, Andrew, along with Emily and younger brother Evan, remained constant fixtures in her hospital room.
In a time when she was hurting the most, Emily Blahnik said her teammates and coaches at Spring Lake provided an amazing support system to help her pull through.
“In meant the world to me that they were there,” she said. “There was someone always visiting. I had my relatives there, but there was really no one my age, no one I could just hug or really talk to, and they provided that.”
“I know it was extremely hard for Emily and really, hard for all of us,” said Brooke TenBrink, one of Emily’s closest friends on the team. “My mom actually works at Spectrum, so she toured us around when we’d visit and take us out to lunch.
“(Emily’s) the type of person who is always smiling and always cheerful, but we knew it was hard what she was going through. After the year that she’s had, I know she’s had breakdowns.”
Before her coma, doctors told the Blahniks that Brenda could come out of the ordeal in a vegetative state, but slowly, a community and family’s prayers were answered. Upon wakening from the coma in critical care, she was transferred to Spectrum’s long-term acute care unit, and then on Oct. 20, to the hospital’s neuro-rehabilitation center.
“She went through a lot of physical therapy,” Emily recalled. “She did speech therapy and they helped to connect the movements of her arms and legs back to her brain. She’s not walking yet, but there are times when you’ll see her left hand moving, then onto her right.”
Despite feeling the need to be by her mother’s side, Blahnik rarely missed any time on the volleyball court, thanks to the support of her teammates and coaches.
“Volleyball was like a haven for me,” Emily said. “I had my teammates there to comfort me and it allowed me to let my expressions and feelings out. But sometimes it was tough. There would be days when we’d get bad news and it was just like, I didn’t feel like doing anything.”
“Last season she only missed a few practices and maybe a couple matches,” added head coach Sarah Bulthuis. “My daughter (assistant coach) Betsy (Bulthuis), actually works and lives in Grand Rapids, so it worked out well. She’d pick up Emily and bring her to and from practice and matches. She’d even pick up Evan too, because there were times when he’d want to get out. I think it was a great relief for both of them.”
“Coach (Sarah) Bulthuis was like a second mom to me,” Blahnik said. “When I was up in the hospital, she’d call me everyday and see how things were going.”
Aside from their visits at the hospital, the Lakers showed their support on the court, as well. About a week after the accident, the team donned bright green shoelaces as well as green ribbons in their hair, since it’s Brenda’s favorite color.
“They surprised me with that, actually during the Fruitport match,” Emily said.
The green laces remain apart of the Lakers’ uniforms this season, as Emily has moved into the starting setter role on a very inexperienced team that has had its share of rough spots. After Tuesday’s home loss to Fruitport, the Lakers’ record stands at 8-12.
“We’ve struggled, but we hope we can put it all together and peak by mid-October,” Blahnik said, who is averaging over five assists a game and is also one of the team leaders in digs.
Today, with her mother back home, Emily said it’s a much easier to balance athletics and family life, since she feels she isn’t being pulled in different directions and the constant worry about her mom’s conditions has been eased. She hasn’t missed a match this season, and neither has her mom or dad.
“(Brenda) was even at the outdoor quad (at Mona Shores),” said Bulthuis. “She was in her wheel chair up in the stands.”
“It’s been great, because my mom loves volleyball, so every time I’m out there, I’m playing for her,” Emily added.
Although the accident has had a dramatic affect on Brenda’s daily life, Emily said her mother continues to show amazing progress.
“She’s getting back to her old self. She’s cracking jokes a lot,” she said.
Brenda is blind in her right eye, but her daughter said that condition is somewhat “touch and go.”
She also has permanent brain damage, which has drastically affected her short- and long-term memory.
For interacting and working with her mom, Emily said she needs to have a plan in place.
“You have to show her what you’re trying to say, and since her vision affects her, you have to move her hands to it. (Interacting with her) is getting better, but it’s still hard.”
The responsibility of caring for a parent in need has forced Emily to grow up in a hurry, Bulthuis said.
“It’s still a tough situation, because being a daughter, she has that extra responsibility that no other high school kid has,” Bulthuis said. “I don’t think kids realize what she’s gone through because they have never had to walk in her shoes.
“But through it all, she’s remained so upbeat and positive. Just the same happy-go-lucky girl.”