Commack's Ally Camarda is all over the volleyball court, confidently throwing her body at the ball for the sake of her teammates. But her mom admits to getting a little nervous each time she sees Ally lay out for a ball.
That's because there are two titanium rods, 16 screws and two hooks in her daughter's back, the result of the three back surgeries she endured in an 11-month span as a freshman and sophomore beginning in May 2010.
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"She's like our hero," Patti Camarda said of her daughter, a senior and the captain of the Cougars. "She's persevered through everything. Everybody that knows her says you wouldn't even know what she's been through. She always has a smile on her face and she's just an inspiration."
The summer before her freshman year, Camarda said, she felt pain and noticed a hump on the right side of her back. Doctors diagnosed her with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, which Dr. Paul Kuflik, an associate director of the Spine Institute of New York, said is "extremely common" to a mild degree among pubescent teenagers. Doctors also determined that she had kyphosis, a severe curvature of the upper part of the spine.
Though Camarda continued to play volleyball, basketball and softball, which she had throughout middle school, she said the notion of starting high school as the girl with a hump on her back was difficult to take in.
"I definitely didn't want to wear any tight shirts and I was scared to put my hair up in a pony tail because that was when it was more noticeable," she said. "T-shirts made it a little less noticeable and I tried to hide it best I could, but it was hard."
To help correct the curve, Camarda was given a back brace to wear when she slept. She said the brace forced her to sleep on her side with her opposite arm bent over her head.
"I think maybe one time I got through the night, but other times I'd take it off in the middle of the night because I just couldn't deal with it," she said.
Camarda, 17, said she wore the brace throughout her freshman year and played through the junior varsity volleyball and basketball seasons. But by the spring of 2010, she said, her spinal curve had become more severe and required surgery.
"She had a 45-degree curve. She looked like a humpback. It got worse," said Camarda's father, Michael. "My wife and I looked at each other and said she has to get fixed."
Kuflik, who oversaw Camarda's case, said her surgery involved putting titanium hardware in her back to correct the curve and "then fusing that segment of the spine so it becomes like one." Camarda had to rest at home for three weeks but returned to school in time to pass her final exams. She then spent the summer in physical therapy, she said, fighting through pain to strengthen her back and return to the volleyball court in time for the fall season. She worked hard and made the varsity volleyball team as a sophomore. She also was promoted within her club travel team, United, to play with the 17-year-olds that winter.
While her back pain persisted on the court, Camarda said she was content just being able to play. "I was starting to feel like myself again," she said.
But in January 2011, complications arose, Camarda's father said, that kept her off the basketball court. She had developed an infection in her spine, which required another surgery to remove the hardware in her back.
Camarda was sent home in a back brace that she'd have to wear for the next two months until the rods could be reinserted. Until then, she required antibiotics, which had to be administered intravenously every eight hours, to fight the infection.
"We all just fell apart," Michael said. "The real difficult part of first having the infection and taking out the rods is then knowing that she had another two months before they opened her up again. Those must have been the hardest two months for her."
"She was like a piece of china after the surgery," Camarda's mother said. "She couldn't do anything for the longest time. She was a kid who always came home from school late and juggled so much."
At school, after the second surgery, Camarda said she tried to cover up the brace by wearing baggy clothes and sweatshirts, and had trouble walking from class to class. She said her friends and teammates always were supportive, and even though she remembers only one awkward moment with a classmate who noticed her wearing the brace, she still felt self-conscious and uncomfortable.
"I guess I was OK with it, but at the same time, I didn't want people to make fun of me and see it. I tried to hide it," Camarda said. "Just being uncomfortable in class, not being able to slouch or stay after school to go to practice, I couldn't do those things. I always had to go straight home and take the IV."
In March 2011, Camarda had her third surgery to reinsert the hardware in her back. She stayed home for a few weeks and couldn't play softball that season, but again was able to finish the school year.
Then, after another summer of physical therapy, Camarda was named a co-captain of Commack's volleyball team for her junior season.
"I've been playing with her since seventh grade and she's always been a great athlete and a great leader," co-captain Kristin Haller said. "We all worry about her no matter what, but when she makes those big plays and gets right back up, we're all excited for her and are really supportive."
Camarda averaged 15 assists, five kills, three aces and two blocks for Commack (6-9) this season.
"She never complained and was always one of the hardest workers out there," Commack volleyball coach Marisa Baran said. "She never stops and makes me proud every day."