Severe injuries teach what's 'really important'
"I love that basketball is a game for tall people," said Spradlin, who has played since she was 5. At almost 6-foot-2, not being able to play basketball was torture. "I couldn't run for months because of my injuries," she said.
"But I knew I needed to try my hardest because I really wanted to play again."
Driving alone on her way to school, Spradlin was severely injured when her car collided with a pickup truck at a Memphis-area intersection Jan. 22, 2014. Despite doctors' low expectations, Spradlin aimed to stay positive amid the rigors of her recovery.
"Rehab was my opportunity," she said. "Whenever they told me to walk for five minutes, I asked if I could walk a mile."
News of the accident initially devastated her parents. "On the way to the hospital, we prayed for God to spare her life," said Mike Spradlin, president of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. "She was only 17 and I prayed she wouldn't be in a wheelchair the rest of her life." Though the idea of losing their only daughter and youngest of their three children was heart-wrenching, Spradlin's mother Lee Ann rejected fear that tried to set in. The Lord immediately reminded her "Laura was right with Him no matter what happened."
Laura was in critical but stable condition when her parents first saw her.
Strapped in a neck brace, her left eye was swollen shut. Still in a coma, she suffered from massive brain bleeding and a fracture in which part of her face had separated from her skull. Her front teeth had been knocked out; a carotid artery, the major blood vessel carrying blood to the brain, had been damaged; and shattered glass was embedded in her face. Other injuries included a severed leg tendon and dislocated elbow.
"We knew things were pretty serious as soon as we saw her," Lee Ann said. After several bad reports, family members prepared for the worst.
Laura's parents refused to leave her alone at Regional One Health in Memphis. They initially split shifts during the day, while family and friends stayed nights. Known as the MED to locals, the hospital is staffed by highly trained trauma specialists, though Mike Spradlin admitted, "We had only heard horror stories about the MED. What we found was the complete opposite. The doctors and nurses were wonderful.
Although on heavy medication, Laura turned a corner just four days after the accident. "Dad, I think I'm in the hospital," she said in a surprise early morning wake-up call that sent her parents racing to the hospital, anxious to see their daughter awake.
In subsequent days and weeks, word spread of the accident. "So many people wanted to visit Laura and help us," Lee Ann Spradlin said. "We were overwhelmed by the support." Laura's aunt created a personal website to give updates. People around the world prayed and posted encouraging messages. Friends delivered hot meals and Spradlin's basketball team even collected money to help with expenses.
"We are so grateful for the body of Christ," Lee Ann Spradlin said. "The family of God was there to help us with whatever we needed."
Recovery was excruciating for Spradlin due to diet restrictions. "My jaw was wired shut and I had to drink all my food through a straw. I was always so hungry," she said. "They brought me cream of mushroom soup for breakfast. It was horrible." Rejecting sugary protein shakes and smoothies, she lost 32 pounds. "I was upset because they wanted me to drink all this sugar and I couldn't move around or work out," she said.
Even when the nutritionist threatened to insert a feeding tube, Laura wouldn't concede. She wasn't satisfied until she could eat her mom's chicken tortellini soup. "It tasted so good and I finally felt full."
Mood and memory changes added to Laura's challenges. Family members never knew if she would angrily lash out, cry uncontrollably or be joyful. In difficult moments when attempts to calm her failed, nurses had to restrain her.
Her parents remained hopeful that her brain would recover. "I know it was hard for them," Laura said. "They had to keep repeating things to me because I wouldn't remember what happened the day before. I still have bad brain days," she said. "But compared to how they thought I would be, I'm so much better."
After four weeks in the hospital, 11 surgeries and months of rehab, Spradlin returned to basketball with flair and vigor. She shocked everyone in her first game by shooting a 3-pointer. Her game, now bolstered by a six-day-a-week workout regimen, had changed -- and everyone could see it, especially intimidated opponents who don't think she can shoot because she's tall.
Spradlin's most striking change is her relationship with Christ. "God taught me to trust Him more," she said, reflecting a joy in sharing her testimony. "When I was in the hospital, everything was taken away. I couldn't walk, or play the piano or play basketball."
This fall, Spradlin will be a power forward for Ouachita Baptist University's Lady Tigers in Arkadelphia, Ark., her spot on the team secured by an impressive tryout.
Despite her achievement, Spradlin cautions young people against becoming fixated on sports, friends and their social lives. "We can make those things our god and push our spiritual life to the side," she said.
"In the scope of things, your soul is what really matters. When I almost died, I learned what was really important."