‘Feeling lost and free’: Student overcomes adversity to follow passions

By Hannah Kaufman

Laura awoke in pain, as usual. The fluorescent lights were blinding and her right leg felt as if it was being crushed and burned simultaneously. Her curly hair was tangled after the six-hour surgery, and the thin hospital gown offered little warmth. 

With last night’s narcotics still in her system, her eyes were nearly shut, but she could feel the presence of her mom and doctors — their hushed voices a mix of anxiety and anticipation. 

The surgeon checked her incisions and hovered around the area, every light touch causing winces of pain she couldn’t mask. Then came the physical exam. 

“Laura, can you wiggle your toes?” asked the doctor.

She did.

“Can you pump your ankle?”

She did.

“Can you wiggle your toes, Laura?”

Laura was confused. She couldn’t see her legs under the weight of her eyelids, but she had already done what the doctor asked. Right? A deafening silence filled the room. She forced her eyes open and saw the look on her mom’s face. 

The look told her more than any doctor ever could.

At 17 years old, Laura Saavedra Forero had just undergone her third surgery following a hip injury five years ago. Now, what started as a tear in her hip left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Laura’s Injuiry

She was taking a corner kick, something she had done thousands of times, on the day of her injury. Her team was playing on the field near her home in Charlotte. Their opponents were the Wilmington Hammerheads, a familiar foe. 

Laura jogged over to the corner mark, her hair in a high ponytail and her No. 8 jersey tucked neatly into her shorts. As her teammates scattered around the opponent’s box, she carefully placed the ball on the grass. In preparation, she took a step with her left foot, made contact with the ball and lofted it into the box.

The other team intercepted the ball and countered, but something else was wrong.

At first, she refused to go down on one knee. She knew her absence would hurt the team, and to Laura, this team mattered more than anything else. Her coaches relied on her natural leadership skills, and she had an intelligence and understanding of the game far beyond her 12 years of age. 

But soon the pain in her right hip became unbearable, and No. 8 was on the bench. What followed was a series of consultations, physical therapy appointments and MRIs, where most doctors told Laura she was fine to continue playing, regardless of her pain.

Finally, one doctor listened. He told her she had a labral tear and femoroacetabular impingement. This meant her hip bone didn’t fit into her joint properly, causing the surrounding tissue to tear. The only fix was surgery, he insisted.

After nine months of excruciating pain, the Saavedras were just happy to have a plan. The surgery’s typical recovery time was only four to six months, and Laura was already placed on a new soccer team for the upcoming season, excited to return to the field.

The season came and went. Laura, still stuck in recovery, played a total of zero minutes. The surgery had failed.

In 2016 came a second surgery to redo the first — with no success — and psychologists began to replace doctors. She was told the pain was in her head and was sent to a pain rehabilitation clinic in January 2020, where she was forced to walk without crutches, even when her knee buckled with every step.

She came home in February. Her third surgery — a hip capsule and labral reconstruction — was scheduled for August, a few days after her birthday. No one could explain why Laura woke up completely paralyzed from the waist down that morning, but some doctors theorized it was her body’s neurological response from the trauma.

Over the next 11 days in the hospital, she gained a little mobility and sensation back, but her legs were zapped of almost all their strength. She found herself adapting to life in a wheelchair. Her mental health waned as she battled depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Laura needed something new.

She got a tattoo of an anatomical heart with a bouquet of flowers growing out of it — a daffodil, aster, gladiolus and two morning glories — each representing the birth month of one of her family members. She fell in love with activism, experimented with adaptive sports and created her own organization to support immigrants. 

However, her love of soccer still shined through. 

Laura remembers the first time she played soccer when she was about three years old. She was dribbling down the field, sporting an oversized Colombian yellow jersey and blue shorts. As she dribbled, she had a feeling she can only now put into words.

“I felt lost and free at the same time,” said Laura.

She later became the manager of her high school soccer team and subbed in for the first minute of senior night, so she could kick the ball — if only once — during her final game. 

Laura came to UNC-Chapel Hill as a Morehead-Cain Scholar in 2021 and began navigating life as a gay, Latinx wheelchair user at a campus that wasn’t built for students with disabilities. 

She made lasting friendships and built a community as the manager of the women’s soccer team and co-president of the Campus Y, however, her chronic pain wasn’t going away. Her family began looking out of state to see if there was a doctor who could help. This past summer, a team in New York City finally decided to take a chance on her. 

“It was the first time I felt some sort of sympathy or empathy from a doctor, being like, ‘you don’t deserve to live like this,’” said Laura.

In New York, one weekend before the date of her June surgery, her best friend from Chapel Hill traveled to attend appointments with her while her family was in Colombia. 

Coincidentally, it also happened to be the weekend of the NYC Pride March.

The next day, Laura and a group of friends showed up to the parade covered head to toe in rainbow colors. Most people at NYC Pride jump the fence to get in, but after bribing someone to open the gate so Laura could wheel in, the group accidentally ended up in the middle of the street with the performers.

The seven students screamed and waved at the sea of people as they walked, skipped and wheeled down the colorful street. Someone asked an older couple if they could borrow their 8-foot-tall pride flag, which they handed to Laura.

The crowd went wild.

In that moment, all Laura felt was love pouring out from every glittery face, every waving hand and every stranger at the parade. She pressed all the way down on her speed control and zoomed past her cheering friends. Laura swerved back and forth to greet the crowd, the flag in her left hand swaying in the wind and her tattoo a blur of ink and daffodils.

Feeling lost and free at the same time.

Edited by Chloe Teacher and Madison Ward