Samantha Elzein, 19, sits on a couch in her family's Monkton home chatting with her sister, 9-year-old Ava, and their mother, Connie. Samantha's dark brown hair frames her face, natural curls bouncing as she talks. She's barefoot with bright pink polish coating her toenails.
The scene is so normal that it would be difficult to imagine that this cheerful young woman needed a walker to reach the living room.
Yet that's what happened when she moved slowly from her bedroom, leaning on her walker while her brother, Abbas, 20, followed behind with his hands around her waist, to steady her if she faltered or fell.
Samantha did neither, instead displaying the same confident attitude that has helped her get through the last three months after a devastating beach accident that initially left her paralyzed, unable to move at all.
After two surgeries and three weeks in University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, she was finally able to move her thumb. Then she jiggled her right foot. Soon after, she could flex her right knee.
Her steady recovery has been the result of long days of physical therapy at the Kennedy Krieger Institute near Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. That hard work allowed her to return home Nov. 8 for good, 88 days after a wave slammed her head into the sand and shattered her vertebrae.
It was a typical scene at the 107th St. beach in Ocean City on a hot Aug. 13 — people running into the ocean to cool off, jumping over and under waves.
Samantha, a 2012 Hereford High School graduate, was staying with relatives for a week. She and her cousin, Sofia Barone, 15, decided to go for a swim. That simple act forever changed Samantha's life.
"We were pretty close to shore and I dove under a wave," Samantha recalled. "The wave pushed my head really hard on the sand and the next thing I knew, I couldn't move. I couldn't feel anything. I was just floating in the water face down and I couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't lift my head to shout for somebody to help me."
Sofia saw that her cousin was in distress and pulled her toward shore, screaming for help. A doctor from Virginia was among the first on the scene.
"The waves were horrible that day. My son was in the water near Samantha and saw the whole thing happen," said Dr. Ronald Bank, an anesthesiologist with Inova Fairfax Hospital. "It was obvious she couldn't move."
Bank helped Samantha into shallow water. Some people wanted to carry her to the lifeguards, but he didn't let anybody move her. "I believe that any movement would have severed her spinal cord," he said.
He continued to hold her head still while paramedics dug under the sand in order to put a collar on Samantha before taking her to a waiting ambulance.
"I was stunned at how composed she was," Banks said.
She was flown to Shock Trauma Center.
"If it wasn't for him, we have no idea what Samantha would be like today," said her mother, Connie. "It turns out his family was supposed to be on vacation somewhere else, but their plans changed and they ended up next to Samantha on the beach."
Samantha's aunt, Pam Barone, had gotten out of the water seconds before the wave hit Samantha. She aided Bank in stabilizing her.
As soon as the Shock Trauma Center helicopter was airborne, Barone and her family packed up, left their rental condo and headed for the center.
Samantha never lost consciousness and remembers the helicopter ride.
"I'm calm the whole time I'm in the helicopter," Samantha said. "I'm thinking, 'OK, this happened. These people are taking good care of me. You'll be fine'."
Connie Elzein was working at Expectations Hair Salon that day and had her cellphone off. She only knew something was wrong when her husband, Mohamad, showed up at the Hereford salon.
"All he said is there had been an accident and Samantha was on her way to Shock Trauma," Connie recalled. "We got there about the same time the helicopter was coming in."
They learned that Samantha had a spinal cord injury at her C6 cervical level — the sixth bone in her spine. She had surgery at 3 a.m. to remove pieces of shattered vertebrae. Doctors fused her C5 and C6 bones together and inserted titanium stabilizing rods.
When Samantha awakened, she had breathing tubes and feeding tubes down her throat and couldn't talk.
Her mother spent the next 21 days and nights at Shock Trauma while Samantha went through another surgery before she had a tracheotomy to breathe without tubes.
"The doctors said they see lots of accidents like Samantha's," her mother said. "People don't think they could be in danger when they go swimming. But this should be a warning to be careful in the ocean."
ROAD TO RECOVERY
By the time she left Shock Trauma for rehabilitation, Samantha could move both arms, her right leg and her left foot, but had no strength in any limb. After an initial stay at Kernan Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, she transferred to Kennedy Krieger Institute on Sept. 17.
"When she first came here, Samantha's legs hurt a lot, her hands were really weak, she wore a cervical collar and still had a trach tube in," said Dr. Suzanne Prestwich, medical director of the in-patient pediatric rehabilitation unit. "Basically, her sixth cervical bone exploded in the accident. Since she's been here, she's had a great outcome. We're always very hopeful for a recovery like this, but it will be a long recovery."
Samantha worked through six hours of physical therapy a day at Kennedy Krieger Institute and she'll continue therapy there on an outpatient basis.
The day before she left to go home, Dr. Bank stopped in for a visit. He has stayed in contact with Samantha's family since the accident.
"We never stopped thinking about her," he said. "It was amazing to see her doing so well. Her attitude is incredible and I'm a huge believer in what a difference that can make."
She's had to postpone going back to Essex Community College, although she hopes to take online classes until she's able to return.
Her family just built a ramp to the front door of their one-story house. Luckily, the interior doorways are wide enough for a wheelchair. But Samantha is convinced she won't need the wheelchair or walker one day. And her progress so far has made believers out of her friends and family.
"The thought of not walking again never crossed her mind," said Barone, who set up a website that accepts donations to help with Samantha's medical expenses. "She can visualize herself walking, hiking and dancing again. With everything that's happened, it's clear that God really is in the miracle business."
Contributions toward Samantha's expenses can be made at https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/caV0f.