This story appears in FCA Magazine’s November/December 2016 issue. Subscribe today!
From bedridden, helpless high school senior to freshman college soccer player. It might seem like a pipe dream, but it’s reality for Parkland College midfielder Hannah Martinez.
An energetic, jubilant girl, Hannah could never get enough of sports and always loved soccer and basketball. No surprise given that her father, Jody, is now an assistant coach for the University of Illinois women’s basketball team. That typical inner drive of a coach’s daughter fueled Hannah to athletic achievements and invigorated her love of competition and team camaraderie.
But nothing was as adrenaline-inducing—or, quite frankly, as terrifying—as her arduous journey away from sports, where she was forced to relearn how to walk and complete once-simple daily tasks. It was a path that realigned her life and her faith, and one that finally led back to athletics.
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A routine physical in fall 2009 revealed a severe lateral curvature in the spine of fifth-grader Hannah Martinez. At 11 years old, she was diagnosed with scoliosis. Her parents immediately started praying for God to heal their daughter.
Eleven-year-old Hannah Martinez posed with her back brace worn to stabilize the curve in her spine.
In the following three years, Hannah strapped on a back brace to combat and stabilize the 32-degree curve in her spine. She’d only remove the brace for small increments of time, like during sports practices or showering. When the growth plates settled into place following eighth grade, Hannah’s brace-wearing days were behind her, but while most people with scoliosis go on to have no further issues, each X-ray at Hannah’s yearly checkups showed her spine continually getting worse.
Doctors typically recommend surgery at a 50-degree curve. Hannah’s was 54.
Perhaps the most frightening threat, though, was her diminished lung volume. Hannah was only at 70-percent breathing capacity due to her spine lying upon one of her lungs.
Knowing surgery was quickly becoming the most likely option, the Martinez family was referred to a spine specialist in St. Louis. Surgery for scoliosis is intricate, followed by a long and difficult road to recovery. The family prepared for it by surrounding themselves with support from friends and family, but fear still festered.
“I’m not one to really get worked up and show emotion, so everyone was like, ‘Oh, she’s doing fine,’” Hannah said. “But deep down I was really nervous and scared.”
As the curve worsened with time, Martinez underwent surgery in which two metal rods and 22 screws were inserted into her back.
Hannah’s mother, Sonya, created a Facebook support group, and words of comfort and prayer poured in. Included was a verse shared by Hannah’s grandma that Hannah clung to, Deuteronomy 31:8: “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; He will neither fail you nor abandon you.”
On June 9, 2015, a couple months before her senior year and the family’s move from Florida to Illinois for Jody to begin working for the Illini, 17-year-old Hannah underwent posterior spinal fusion surgery in St. Louis. Two metal rods and 22 screws were inserted in her back, and a hump on her right shoulder blade was fixed.
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Looking back now, Hannah remembers being at peace entering the operating room.
“God was with the doctors and nurses and with every instrument that went into my back,” she said. “He was not going to let anything happen. If anything did happen, it was for His purpose.”
The surgery was a success, but—in terms of the overall process—it was a bit like trekking the first couple miles of a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. The rigorous fight back to normalcy was just beginning. The first few weeks whirled into a hurricane of pain, prayer and perseverance.
Any high school senior yearns for a new sense of independence, and Hannah was stripped of hers. Not to mention her diminished body strength, which sapped the girl who had always been on the go. During her six-day post-operation stay, rehab consisted of learning how to get in and out of bed, walking up and down stairs, and getting in and out of a car. Upon release, doctors advised her to not bend, lift or twist for four months. Sonya propped Hannah up for stretches of 5-15 minutes at a time and woke her up every two hours to rotate in bed.
“That’s hard for a 17-year-old girl to totally depend on her mom to wash her hair and brush her teeth,” Sonya said.
While she still longed for her once-active lifestyle, Hannah grew into a deeper closeness with both God and her mother during the long months of rehabilitation.
“I’d been so active with sports, so not being able to even walk or sit up was so hard to go through,” Hannah said. “But I kept to Scripture, and having my mom by my side 24/7 brought our relationship to a whole other level.”
Because of the curvature of her spine, Hannah had a hunch in her back her whole life. Now that her spine was realigned, she needed a while to readjust to her new equilibrium. She often pondered whether she’d ever walk again, let alone play the sports she loved. This tempestuous season sewed seeds of faith, as Hannah leaned into God against the gale when just shifting her weight was a momentous accomplishment.
“She learned total dependence on Him in a real, tangible way,” Sonya said. “There was no way we were going to get through those days without leaning on the Lord.”
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Less than eight weeks after surgery, Hannah had progressed enough to join the family in their move to Illinois. She began school in Champaign with hopes of connecting with peers through FCA—and maybe even playing sports—during her final year of high school.
“When people say I can’t do this, I say I can and I will,” she said. “It might take more time, there might be some things I work around, but I’m thankful for what I have and what I’m able to do with scoliosis.”
"Being able to play sports is incredible in itself. But coming back from surgery to play and witness for Him and tell other people my story, that's what it's all about." -Hannah Martinez
Hannah immersed herself in Centennial High School’s FCA Huddle, joining the leadership team and inviting teammates to her house for team dinners. She also reached out to others struggling with a similar condition, even connecting with a young gymnast in Florida whom she visited on spring break, encouraging her and offering practical advice on what to expect in surgery and rehab.
As the weeks and months went by, Hannah’s body began to make a full recovery. Small victories became larger ones, and a richer appreciation for life developed within her, especially when she and Sonya made the three-and-a-half hour drive to St. Louis for checkups at the children’s hospital. The children there—many in life-threatening predicaments—had such an unfathomable joy that helped eradicate the despair within Hannah.
“We’d both leave in tears, and she’d say, ‘Mom, what I’m going through is treatable, and I’m going to get better. These kids aren’t, but they have so much joy,’” Sonya said. “It gave a new appreciation for people who go through chronic illnesses because that’s what they’re like all the time. Our faith totally went to another level.”
Champaign FCA area representative Sara Hurst met the Martinez family while serving Jody and the rest of the Illinois’ women’s basketball team, and she continues to minister to them throughout the journey.
“[Hannah] has that empathy for other people because she has dealt with a lot,” Hurst said. “Whether it’s physical pain or setbacks, not being sure how God’s going to work something out, or being a new kid in school and having to put yourself out there to make friends. She’s been phenomenal. She lives in ministry, inviting people into her life and letting them see Christ in her. She’s not ashamed of her faith and makes other people feel cared for and important.”
Days before basketball tryouts, Hannah’s body was healing so quickly that she pleaded with her mom to get clearance from her doctor to get on the court. She received that clearance on Nov. 25, 2015, just five months and 16 days after her surgery.
She had to go slow at first, of course. No body contact. But just one month into the season she was slotted into the starting lineup, gliding up and down the court like she’d never missed a beat.
“If you didn’t know she had surgery, you wouldn’t be able to tell,” Sonya said. “A lot of parents were surprised to find out. It is pretty remarkable.”
Hannah also played soccer the following spring, and had such a good season that it led to an opportunity to keep playing as a freshman at nearby Parkland College, where she’s involved with the campus FCA Huddle.
“A year ago I never thought I would have this opportunity,” she said. “But thanks to God, He healed me and let me perform at the next level. It is something I never take for granted, and I am grateful for all the friends and memories God has allowed me to have with my team so far.”
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God’s craftsmanship through the strain of struggle and pain has allowed patience and faith to take shape and be imprinted upon Hannah’s spirit.
“It was incredible to watch the process of healing,” Hurst said. “She’s been through a lot since she was 11, but you would never know. She never complains.”
"A year ago I never thought I would have this opportunity. But thanks to God, He healed me... It is something I never take for granted." -Hannah Martinez
The surgery—and months of recovery—gave Hannah a renewed certainty and strength to her faith.
“During recovery I wondered, ‘Will I really overcome? Will I ever get to do this?’ But it will get better,” she said. “It might take a year, it might take a week, but no matter how long it takes, stay strong, keep praying and trusting in God. That’s the biggest thing you can do and what your faith should be grounded in.”
From the start, God’s gait matched Hannah’s every step of the way and has lived up to what the Martinez family has dubbed, “Only God.” There’s just no other way to describe how His hand guided the entire process with abounding provision and His presence. It’s a modern medical marvel, accentuated by miraculous movement to build Hannah back up not only as an athlete, but also as God’s messenger.
“Being able to play sports is incredible in itself,” she said. “But coming back from surgery to play and witness for Him and tell other people my story, that’s what it’s all about.”
Photos courtesy of Hannah and Sonya Martinez and Parkland Athletic Department