Article and video created and originally published by New Paltz Hawks
With the Hawks up by a goal, No. 7 nationally ranked Kean University was buzzing around the cage. The Cougars narrowly tied the game as they found an opening off a corner, but junior center back Sam Moran made a remarkable play, diving, full extension to get her stick in front of the shot just before it crossed the goal line to hold her team's lead. The crowd awed on the highlight play, a remarkable effort for any player on the field — but for Moran, it meant much more.
Just eight months prior, at just 19-years-old, Moran never thought she'd lose her ability to walk. In the best shape of her life, she was just a month removed from helping the SUNY New Paltz field hockey program to its sixth conference championship title and a run into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. But her life changed forever when she started feeling sick after she and her housemates caught the flu just before finals week.
At the time, nothing was thought of the illness — flu like symptoms were common, especially at the age of COVID. Moran and her housemates tested negative for COVID-19 but continued to have lingering symptoms. Everyone eventually started to get better except for Moran. Her symptoms, instead, got progressively worse. She had no idea what lied ahead of her.
"I had the flu for about two or three weeks, and it just wasn't getting better, and then one day I woke up and my legs felt tingly," Moran said. "I thought I was just tired, and my body was just worn down because I had been sick for so long, but it wasn't going away. It was only getting worse. So, the next morning I woke up and the tingly feeling went up from my toes all the way up to my thighs and my hips, and that's when I knew something was wrong so I decided to go to the health center and they were like, you should go to the hospital."
The sensation progressed up her body and eventually she had trouble standing. Sitting in class one day, in the middle of a test, Moran whispered over to her housemate and field hockey teammate, Hannah Ackerman, saying she might faint. Ackerman immediately helped Moran out of class and realized her friend wouldn't make the walk back to their house, only about 10 minutes from their classroom door. She aided Moran down the stairs and waited until their other housemate, and field hockey teammate, Morgan Woolley picked them up and brought Moran immediately home.
"I was holding both hers and my backpack, linked arms and she was leaning on me too," Ackerman recalled. "We stopped halfway down the stairs, walked the other half down, waited again, because there was a long stretch to get to Morgan's car and we just took it really slow, and we just drove her home because the walk was too far."
Eventually, Moran called her parents and they convinced her to head to the health center on campus. She explained her symptoms: the in-ability to walk, limited balance and after about 10 minutes of testing she was told the worst-case scenario. They believed Moran had a rare disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
"That's when I started panicking, because of course I googled my symptoms beforehand and I saw that Guillain-Barre Syndrome was a thing," Moran said. "That's when my mom started driving up from Long Island and we were going to head to the hospital."
Guillain-Barre Syndrome, or "GBS" is rare condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy nerve cells. Symptoms of GBS can range from mild to severe depending on the level of nerve damage. Symptoms can quickly spread, which can ultimately paralyze the entire body. When weakness affects the ability to breath, GBS can be fatal.*
"I was at work when she called to tell me that she was dizzy during her final and Hannah was going to take her to the health center because the night before she had tingling in her feet and the next day her legs were feeling weird," said Linda Moran, Sam's mother. "I actually left work and started to drive up because for her to go to the health center I knew she must've been scared."
Dr. Jack Ordway and Dr. Ann Andola stayed with Sam even after the health center closed until Linda arrived at New Paltz. They swung by Sam's house, picked up a few of her belongings and headed straight to the hospital to Mt. Sinai in New York City.
At the hospital, Sam underwent MRI's, two spinal taps and immense testing before doctors confirmed the diagnosis of GBS. From that moment forward, she spent nearly a full month at Mt. Sinai where she had to endure the hardest experience of her life, fighting through pain as her body slowly shut down, losing her ability to use her hands or legs.
"At first it was really difficult because I lost all motor skills," she said. "The first month I was in the hospital when it was consecutively getting worse. I got to the point where I couldn't move anything from my shoulders and below. I was just paralyzed from the shoulders down and after we started doing treatments and immunoglobulin therapy which was where they had some medicine through an IV every day, eventually small things started coming back."
Sam saw her parents speaking with her doctors before they all came in to explain her diagnosis: her symptoms will progressively get worse before she was able to get better — and that was exactly what happened.
"I could have no clue what would come ahead of me," she said. "When they told me it was going to get worse, I didn't know how worse. It was a bunch of unknowns, and it was really scary. You're telling me I can't walk and it's going to get worse than that. I didn't know what to expect."
When she arrived at Mt. Sinai, Sam was unbalanced but was able to walk on her own. In a matter of two days, she lost her ability to walk and even struggled to stand. Eventually, she lost the use of her hands, needing help to sit up and eat, losing all function from her neck down and even lost the ability to speak.
"That was the scariest time about a week and a half before Christmas," said Sam's father, Craig Moran. "Her tongue and her eye [drooped to the side] and they thought they had to put her on a ventilator, because it was progressing above her neck and that was gut-wrenching. We'd go into the bathroom and cry, come back out and smile for Sam. It was tough."
The month of December became the worst. Sam was restricted to her bed, unable to even hold her phone, but every day Linda read all of her text messages of support from her friends, teammates and family. As Sam looked back at the immense support she received from all of her loved ones, including from the nurses and doctors that helped her through the toughest times at Mt. Sinai, the impact was significant in keeping her positive mindset in recovery.
"I had no feeling in my hands. I couldn't reach out to any of my friends. I couldn't reach out to anybody," she said. "My mom was communicating with Morgan and Hannah and coach [Shanna Szablinski] through her phone, so I remember she told her one day that I could read messages. My parents could show me any messages I received. I just couldn't respond. But every day I was getting messages from coach, my teammates, my friends saying hang in there, you're strong — and honestly, it helped a lot. I felt bad I couldn't respond, but I know they knew I felt bad and that I saw them, but that was definitely a huge factor in keeping up mentally. And just my parents being there, all the doctors, nurses. I was there for a long time, so I got to know them, and they were my friends almost and they were just very supportive too."
"It was hard not being able to just be there with her," Woolley said. "We came in COVID year, and we were isolated from doing normal stuff and then it was our first almost normal year, and it went back to her being in isolation and we couldn't even Facetime her at that point."
As the end of December neared, Sam was progressively getting worse and the diagnosis from the doctors was bleak. They thought she wouldn't have the ability to walk for at least six months — a reality she refused to accept.
"Being told it was going to be at least six months was another bad day for me, because I was coming off of field hockey season. I was in great shape. I was running around all day. I was out with my friends all the time and now I'm going to be bed ridden for six months? It was definitely not the news I wanted to hear," she said.
Throughout the holidays, Craig and Linda were there with their daughter, watching as she slowly deteriorated. They remained upbeat and positive, trying to help her through the pain she was enduring.
As the holiday season approached, all Sam wished for was to get better. And, on Christmas morning, she was given that little piece of hope. Laying in the hospital bed, Sam woke up and was able to wiggle her big toe for the first time in nearly three weeks. "My parents were ecstatic about it. They said it was a Christmas miracle," she said.
"It showed that there was progress," Craig added. "The first treatment was a bunch of antibodies, which were three hours at a time on an IV drip and that didn't work. And the second treatment, they scrub your blood. Every other day, they empty blood from you, put a needle from your neck to your heart and refill with plasma. She always had a port in her neck with a wire down to her heart — but on Christmas Day to see her feet moving a little it was great. It was what she asked for and she lit up the room."
That point forward, Sam slowly started to improve. She worked every day to get better. There was a fear the disease would hit her lungs and she would be forced to be on a ventilator, but every time the nurse came over to test her lungs, Sam made sure to avoid any doubt of having any help breathing on her own.
After about 20 days of seeing her health decline, Sam started progressing after going through immunoglobulin therapy, getting medicine through IV daily, and eventually she started working her way back to simple motor functions. Her parents, nurses and doctors pushed her each day in physical therapy and eventually she was well enough to be transferred to St. Charles on Long Island to begin her rehab.
"If I didn't have the support system that I had, I genuinely would've been worse and not have gotten better so quickly," she said. "There were days where I didn't want to do physical therapy, I didn't want to get up. Everything that I did hurt. Everything caused me pain, sitting up, trying to get to the edge of the bed — it all hurt. It's just a weird thing because I couldn't move but I could still feel pain. During PT I was trying to walk, and it felt like I was walking on pebbles or very large rocks. It was very uncomfortable. I didn't want to do it, but at the same time that was what was going to make me better, so I knew I needed to stay consistent with it. My parents, all my nurses and doctors, all my friends, they were a big help. They were there to keep me going. Even though I hated them sometimes, yelling at me to get up, I knew it helped."
At St. Charles Sam made huge progress. She was in physical therapy three to four hours a day. The first day she arrived she couldn't even stand on her own, but by day four she began walking with assistance. She started first with help, then with a walker and then with limited aid as she quickly proved her six-month diagnosis wrong.
"By the time I got to the physical therapy hospital there was already such a huge difference," she said. "To not being able to move from shoulders down at all to being able to sit at the edge of the bed, picking up a spoon to feed myself, it was just huge differences that I saw already. I was just trying to think every day I was getting better. From here on out I'm getting better. I'm not getting worse, and I didn't want to allow myself to get worse, so like I said, I just did whatever I could to keep going forward."
Throughout physical therapy, Linda helped her daughter get better with the help of her sister, Margie, who was a physical therapist herself. Sam felt as though the depth of her parents finding any way possible to get their daughter healthy helped in her fast recovery.
"She was in my mom's ear 24-7 telling her everything to do," Sam said of her aunt. "My mom had this little facial scrubber I remember she would just rub my legs while I was there to keep my nerves alive and at the time, I was arguing with her. Like this isn't going to do anything, this is stupid, I don't think this is going to have an effect and I also think that's another reason why I got better so quickly, because my parents were on top of it like that. They wanted to do everything they could. I remember them asking my PT during their visitation hours what they could do for me. I had little elastic rubber bands they'd put around my ankles and I'd do little ankle exercises, wrist exercises and they just helped out a lot. I know they wanted me to get better just as much as I wanted to get better."
Sam became an anomaly. She wanted no part in prolonging her stay and refused to accept being bedridden for any longer. On January 26, just a few weeks after she was told she would not walk for at least half a year, she was released from St. Charles Hospital. Sam needed just a cane to walk out the doors and three days later after being home for the first time since November, she no longer needed any type of assistance and walked by herself around her home.
"I talked to my parents about it a lot and when I got out of the hospital and I did a lot of research on other people's stories who had Guillain-Barre and some of them aren't walking, a lot of them aren't running so I just kept wondering why I got better so quickly," she said. "I think a big part of it was that I didn't want to accept the diagnosis they gave me. I wasn't OK with not being able to walk for six months so I think a lot of it was my will to just keep going. Like I said, it hurt. It was tough mentally and physically, but I wanted to get better as quickly as possible and if the doctors and physical therapists are telling me this is the way I'm going to do that, then I was going to do as much as I could."
After leaving the hospital, Sam began a three-day a week rehab to continue strengthening her nerves and muscles. She wasn't sure when she would ever run again, and it wasn't until a push from her physical therapist where she got the opportunity to run for the first time.
"Running wasn't even in the picture for me at the time and a few weeks into PT outside of the hospital, my physical therapist said, do you want to get on the treadmill today? And I said, yeah, I'll try to walk, and he said, no, do you want to try running?" she recalled. "So, I tried at the slowest speed, and we slowly went up and I just remember I was running. I never thought I had to be conscious when I'm walking or running. I never thought I had to be like, oh put left foot first and then right foot, but that's what it was like for a while. Literally in my head I was like ok, one foot after another. And throughout PT I slowly just increased the speed and tried to run for five minutes, then 10 minutes and eventually I got to 20 minutes, which was just a highlight."
Sam wasn't sure if she was going to play college hockey again, but what she did know was she missed the sport. She gradually picked up her stick throughout the spring and hit around, and was there to support her team at their spring play day in late March.
"It was tough to be on the sideline for the spring season, especially when we had our play day," she said. "I saw our team running around the field and they were scoring goals left and right, and I was on the sideline. I was cheering and I was trying to stay positive, but in the back of my mind of course I thought, I should be out there. I should be helping my team, and part of me felt guilty, because I could run. Like why am I not out there? Why am I not helping the team? And I still feel guilty every now and then when I'm not at my best and I have to remind myself what I went through and it's OK I'm not back where I was. I am recovering. They didn't think I was going to walk for six months, let alone running, let alone passing on the field again, so I just have to give myself credit sometimes."
Easing herself back into field hockey, Sam decided to play summer league with Ackerman and Woolley and remarkably there was no inkling that just a few months before she was re-learning how to walk. Ackerman and Woolley kept Szablinski informed on how Sam was performing in the summer and that if she was ready, Sam was more than able to contribute on the field.
"Sam is just really talented at what she does," said Hawks coach Shanna Szablinski. "She's a smart player and she's composed and that never went away. Honestly, you couldn't' tell that she was in the hospital for months without being able to walk or do things normally. You just weren't able to tell when she came back. To me it was wild. I thought maybe there would be significant difference of things she would do on the field, and it seemed like she did not skip a beat, which is absolutely amazing. Sam just stepped in and looked like nothing ever changed."
To everyone on the outside Sam didn't look like she missed a beat, but for Sam , she still was feeling pain each time after playing and there was hesitancy to commit to the season in the fall. She took it day by day and Szablinski refused to remove her from the roster, keeping the door open if she was willing to come back and play again.
"We kind of just let things go day by day," Szablinski said. "We just talked about process. Where she was at, what she was doing, what the doctors think that her timeline was. I never wanted to put any pressure on her, because she just went through a traumatic experience. As a coach, I wanted to stay in the moment with Sam and every milestone that she hit, whether it was running for five minutes to seven minutes to 10 minutes, we celebrated and we got excited about, because those were huge. After not being able to walk… that was huge. I think just taking it day by day, moment by moment was just the approach Sam and I had."
"I was definitely nervous, but I told her I would be there for preseason the day preseason started," Sam said. "I told her I'd give it a shot. I'd go through preseason, see what I could do and see how I feel. The first day was definitely hard and definitely noticed how out of field hockey shape I was. I wasn't fast. I wasn't very flexible. It was hard to get low, but every day I went through preseason, and I was like OK, got through today now I'll just get through tomorrow, and then preseason was over. I was like OK, let's get through the first game and see how I do through the first game, and then I played. And I started let alone that. I didn't know I was going to start, but it felt great to be on the field again and all I could think about was where I was, and now I'm starting the season. It feels fake. If I told someone this story, they'd be like, no you're lying. It's just so incredible that I'm here and that I'm playing."
Not only was Sam playing again, she quickly became an integral part of the Hawks defense. And, after a long preseason she earned her first start of her collegiate career Sept. 1, just nine months after getting her potential six-month diagnosis.
"Sam always has a presence about her," Szablinski said. "She does things at a level where she is going to make the people around her better. She always works hard. There's not a moment where she goes through the motions. I'd say she epitomizes the values of New Paltz Field Hockey. She has the challenge mindset. She competes. She cares about the people around her and these are things that are really important not only to our program, but that are important to Sam, and you can see it when she's out there. Sam is an important piece to our puzzle, but not just because of field hockey but because of what she's been through to show that resiliency and how to steer clear when you hit those moments of adversity, and she did so in such a way that I think a lot of people wouldn't have been able to handle. It just speaks to her character and her will power. "
SUNY New Paltz opened up the season at home against Ramapo College with Moran slotted in the starting lineup, earning her first career start as the Hawks center back. She played the full 60 minutes and helped lead her team to a 1-0 season-opening win.
The moment — watching their daughter walk off the field, after a home win after all she had endured to get to that point — was not lost on her parents, who were there every moment of the turbulent recovery she went through.
"I had sunglasses on, but I was crying," Craig said. "When they said, 'Sam Moran from Manorville,' and she did her wave — it was very emotional. It still is. I go up there and smile. I hug her and I smile that's all anybody can do."
"It was definitely emotional," Sam added. "I didn't know if I was going to be playing, so to walk off the field knowing I played the whole game and the fact that we won helped a little bit. I didn't know where I was going to be, especially if you asked me right after I got out of the hospital. If you asked me if I was playing, I wouldn't have known. It's just still a bunch of unknowns and it was definitely emotional. I was definitely happy, and I was proud of myself. I thought about it a lot and the past month of the season how proud I am of myself. Even if I'm not where I was last year, I'm just proud of how far I've come since being in the hospital."
Sam never missed a start throughout the Hawks' 2022 season. She finished the year leading her team in minutes played, logging 981 minutes on the field. She scored her second career goal in a 5-3 win over St. John Fisher and also paced her team in defensive saves totaling five on the season, while establishing herself as one of the best backs in the conference.
"Honestly at first, I was just in shock. How can somebody physically do that, but knowing the person that Sam is it doesn't surprise me that she put all the time and effort into it so that she could come back out there," Ackerman said. "I think she's really just excelled way farther than she would have thought, anyone would have thought. That's considering that she didn't even have a spring season. We all played too, and she just jumped right back in. She has starting position, she holds down our defense and it does want to make everyone work harder because if she can go through that and just give 110 percent and still be so successful, our whole team admires her for that. "
"That's just how Sam is," Woolley added. "She is very to herself and very humble, but she just goes into everything with such a high passion for wanting to do it and wanting to do it well. Watching her during practice, during workouts and school and stuff too — she excels at school. It's just motivating to see that. Then coming from what happened to her… it really sticks with [you], and you really can't take anything for granted."
Less than a year later, Sam exceeded where doctors, or anyone, expected her to be. She's finally getting to do everything she had planned on last winter: hiking, snowboard, hanging out with her friends and for the first time, she is living her life as a normal 20-year-old college student.
Her toughness, resiliency and perseverance got her through the worst experience of her life, a potential fatal diagnosis, and she not only recovered but has excelled past all the adversity. Her story, hopefully, can resonate with others going through similar obstacles and give them hope. The same hope she hung onto that not only allowed her to get better, but ultimately, made her stronger as well.
"That's the worst thing I've gone through in my life, and I made it through," she said. "It definitely has a mental factor; you know anything that gets thrown at me now, it will be tough, but I can get through it. I think it made me stronger mentally. At first it made me weaker physically, but then I got better. I think it just helps me get through anything now, like I've been through worse. I think that's how I think of it now."
Director: Monica D’Ippolito, New Paltz Athletic Communications Director
Video Edited By: Thomas Hetherington and Jacob Samson, New Paltz Athletic Communications
Pictures Taken By: Tasia Plunkett