A single run around the track at Burnaby North Secondary may not seem like cause for celebration, but for one Burnaby woman, it was enough to move her to tears.
Susan Crossley-Vorell, a mother of two and an athlete in her youth, circled the track once on Thursday, Sept. 20, clearing the first hurdle on a path to reclaim her health.
"It went amazingly well," she said. "I feel like my road to recovery has just begun."
Crossley-Vorell, now 44, was an athlete in her high school years. She was a track-and-field champion who won athlete of the year throughout high school, a level-five skier and a competitive swimmer, who secured a soccer scholarship to university.
About four-and-a-half years ago, Crossley-Vorell was carrying her second child and found herself facing a harrowing, high-risk pregnancy. She spent three months in bed, leading up to the pregnancy, which left her leg muscles completely atrophied, drained of all strength and muscle mass.
"I had to be on bed rest to make sure that myself and my son would survive," she said.
It wasn't until after her son was born and she fell down a flight of stairs that she learned the walking pain she felt wasn't a normal postpartum problem. Crossley-Vorell went to an orthopedic surgeon and found out she also had patellofemoral pain syndrome, brought on by the three months of bed rest. She was told she would most likely not run again.
But Crossley-Vorell was not having any of it.
"I am a very determined person. I never believed it," she said, reciting her history of athletic prowess. "Imagine telling someone like me that you will not be able to run again? I never believed it. I always stayed positive, and I said, 'No, I will run again.'"
Then came years of aqua-size, physiotherapy and massage to rebuild her leg muscles. But last year, she experienced a turning point that strengthened her conviction to run again. While helping an injured child at her daughter's school, her three-year-old son suddenly ran off.
"It was extremely frightening for me because I couldn't find him," Crossley-Vorell said.
Knowing she could only run, and not walk, she decided to abandon the injured girl in search of her own child. Three minutes later, a teacher found him on the edge of a sidewalk next to a busy road.
"That was the longest three minutes of my life," Crossley-Vorell said. "At that moment, I said to myself, this is even more reason I will run again."
In the past year, she's started cycling and has gone on longer walks. She can swim again and do laps in the pool, like she used to. But on Sept. 20, she felt ready to try running for the first time in five years. While NOW photographer Larry Wright was there to capture the moment, Crossley-Vorell did not tell anyone else. Her knee started to hurt at the 300-metre mark, but she made it.
"It was a very emotional day for me," Crossley-Vorell said. "My journey has just begun, and I have a long way to go, but I feel like I've jumped over the first hurdle. And I feel like my son is so worth all of this."
Crossley-Vorell still wants to improve her physical health, and her first run around the track was just one major step.
"I want to become a faster swimmer again. I want my legs to feel stronger again. I want to know I can help my daughter with her soccer, and I can join in on my son's future endeavours," she said. "I still have a ways to go, but this is my determination, and I'm so happy I was able to run."
Crossley-Vorell was thankful for her friends and neighbours, the Fogale family, whom she described as loving and supportive.
Crossley-Vorell is also hoping her story serves as an inspiration to others with an injury or disability.
"I just want them to know: never give up and have patience," she said. "It takes a lot of patience and positive will."