FELICIAN'S ALBERT BEATS ODDS, RETURNS TO COURT
by Mark Mentone, Sports Information Director, Felician College
Her participation in Division II athletics is a big reason why Suzanne Albert is at nearly full health today.
Albert, who plays volleyball and basketball at Felician College in Lodi, N.J., sat out all of 2007-08 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, before returning to both sports this season. But that is just the end of her story of recovery, perseverance, and courage.
The tale begins in mid-November 2006, her senior year at Felician. The Golden Falcons women's basketball team had returned from the 2006-07 Disney's Division II Tip-Off Classic in Florida, and had two weeks of practice before resuming the season. The morning after a routine Monday evening practice, Albert, a mathematics education major, reported to a local high school for her usual day of student-teaching. But she noticed problems right away.
"I woke up with a headache and numbness in my arm; I thought I had slept on it wrong," said Albert, a native of Montreal, Canada. "But then I had trouble keeping breakfast down. At school my body felt bad and I had trouble with balance. I blacked out at lunch, so I called our athletic trainer for help."
The athletic trainer, Rebecca DiPillo, took Albert to Hackensack University Medical Center, where a stroke was ruled out, and a nerve test came out normal. But by this time, Albert's entire left side was paralyzed. She called one of her brothers, who began the six-hour ride from Montreal. After the nerve test, an MRI of her brain was ordered.
"The doctor's facial expression wasn't good," Albert said. "He sent me to a neurologist right away, and (the neurologist) had the same reaction. As my brother drove me home, I could do less and less for myself."
In Canada, Albert spent two weeks in an intensive care unit. Then, the shocking diagnosis came - multiple sclerosis. She was assigned to a rehabilitation center, where life essentially started over.
"I had to learn to do all of the basic things again," she said. "I started in a wheel chair, and graduated to walking normally. It was hard being in there; it felt like the end of the world."
She left the rehab center shortly after New Year's Day, 2007, with several goals in mind. First, she wanted her college degree.
"I was in the rehab center for two months," Albert said. "The original prognosis was 4-6 months. The doctors said my speedy recovery was because I was an athlete -- the determination. Now I was determined to get back to Felician for the spring semester and graduate. I didn't finish school for the fall semester, but some of my professors sent my fall work to the hospital and I did it there."
Albert did indeed return to New Jersey for the spring semester. She attended her teammates' games, was honored on Senior Day, and received her bachelor's degree. But as she attended her physical therapy sessions and felt her body improve, she set more goals for herself.
Albert had a year of NCAA eligibility left in both sports. But she still needed to be physically able to perform at the Division II level. With that in mind, she asked her doctors in Montreal about playing in a summer basketball league. When she passed a physical and her bloodwork showed no reason for concern, they gave their blessings.
"I went through outpatient therapy to learn to run again," Albert said. "Then I had to retrain all the muscles. That was before I joined the team. Something inside me told me to keep pushing. It was more than the love of the game; it was wanting that feeling of running up and down the court again. I think if I weren't an athlete, things might have turned out differently."
Fate would strike Albert again during her comeback attempt. As she worked herself back into shape during the summer league, she suffered a serious knee injury. When it was diagnosed as a torn ACL, her comeback season was over before it started.
One of her first calls was to Felician director of athletics Ben "J.R." DiNallo, who was the women's basketball coach during Albert's recruitment to the school. "I remember calling J.R. and bawling," she said. "I thought someone had put a spell on me. We went over the possibility that, if I really wanted to still play, I could go to graduate school part-time and preserve my eligibility for the following year."
That is exactly the decision Albert made. Many people in her life questioned why she would do such a thing - but not DiNallo.
"Her grit and determination wouldn't allow her to end her career on an injury," DiNallo said. "It's not just about putting a jersey on for Sue; it's about an opportunity to play. As much (rehabilitation) work as she did, it was important to her to continue to be a part of a team. She didn't want to give that up, and she didn't want it taken away from her because she injured her knee."
So Albert dropped down to two graduate classes per semester, which, in Division II, would make her eligible for 2008-09 in both sports. By doing so, she prevented herself from completing her master's in special education this spring.
However, she once again spent a great deal of time around both teams, even serving as a graduate assistant coach for the basketball team. And after one more grueling summer, she was finally ready for her comeback
The ending has been far from fairy-tale. A defensive specialist in volleyball, Albert played in 52 sets and posted 44 digs during the 2008 season, both career lows, for a team that missed the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference playoffs. At press time, she had played in just one of 14 basketball games on the season. On the human side, the stress from her battle with M.S. caused her to break up with a boyfriend, and she will spend at least one more semester in graduate school because of the schedule changes she made to preserve her NCAA eligibility.
But for the woman who hopes to one day start her own foundation to assist fellow M.S. patients, there is no looking back.
"I wanted to end things the right way, and I have no regrets," Albert says. "It is such a blessing from God, giving me this opportunity. I got a second chance to even walk again and I wanted to make the most of it. We still don't know what the future holds (for M.S. patients). I have to take shots three times a day for the rest of my life - or until they find a cure."