Undaunted by grim prognosis, college softball star vows to return to the field
On April 18, Bella Picard, a sophomore on the St. Joseph's softball team, walked to the plate at Fordham University. The moments that followed were a blur.
The single to right field in the first inning. The sign to hit and run. The batter's swing and miss. The hesitation off of first base. The collision with Fordham's shortstop. The darkness that ensued.
"I can't even remember my at-bat that got me on first base,” says Picard, St. Joseph’s speedy centerfielder. "I asked later, how did this happen to me?”
Picard was in the midst of a fine sophomore season, one in which she was hitting .353 through 31 games, with 10 stolen bases in the No. 2 spot in the batting order for the Hawks.
In less than two seasons playing college softball, Picard was already regarded as one of the Atlantic 10’s top up-and-comers. She was the type of player coaches loved, opposing pitchers feared and fans came to watch. One who could wreak havoc with her feet, an animal of sorts between the white lines. “She wasn’t afraid to go as hard as she could on every play,” St. Joseph’s coach Terri Adams says. “Whether we were winning by 10 or losing by 10, you could never tell what the score was by the way Bella played the game.”
Picard’s greatest athletic gifts became her ultimate curse on April 18 when she dashed toward second base with teammate Nicole Palase at the plate. With a 2-1 count and the hit and run on for the visiting Hawks, Palase swung through the pitch and missed, causing Picard to hesitate for a split second.
Picard's moment of panic left her one step behind the catcher’s throw, resulting in an aggressive head-first slide and a violent collision with the knee of Fordham’s shortstop Allie Bradian. In an instant, Picard was knocked unconscious, and for a few harrowing moments, silence enveloped Fordham’s Bahoshy Field in the Bronx.
Amazingly, Picard got up after a few moments of unconsciousness and began running sprints behind the visitors’ dugout to prove to Adams that she could remain in the game. “She didn’t want to come out,” Adams says.
The intensity of the collision and Picard’s initial unresponsiveness, however, convinced Adams to send her 19-year-old spark plug to the emergency room.
At the hospital, Picard’s situation proved much more dire than she had originally anticipated. Doctors discovered that she had fractured her fifth cervical vertebra and had heavy swelling in her spine.
The news thereafter did not improve. Three days after her gutsy slide, on the morning of April 21, Picard awoke in New York Presbyterian Hospital without the ability to move the entire right side of her body, and soon learned that her fractured vertebra was millimeters away from nicking her spine and paralyzing her completely. “It didn’t even feel real,” Picard says. "I never even sit down, so I thought, ‘Is this going to be my life? Am I really going to have to live in a wheelchair?'”
After a successful surgery, doctors told a petrified Picard that it would be two to three years, at best, before she would be able to walk again, and that she had likely played her final inning of softball. “Every doctor told me that it was such a freak accident,” Picard says. “The speed that I had to be running at, the speed that Allie had to be running at, and the force that we had to create to break my vertebra like that is the equivalent of the force involved in a car accident."
The ever-driven Picard was unwilling to accept her prognosis. With the diligence and determination that had earned her the highest batting average in the nation (.902) as a junior at Blackstone Valley Tech High School in Upton, Mass., and subsequently, a scholarship to St. Joseph’s, the soccer player-turned-softball star got to work immediately, and set out to prove her doctors, and any other doubters, wrong.
Like a circus acrobat, Picard tirelessly practiced her balance in an effort to regain her once steady footing. She rehabbed daily with physical therapists, working with a motor program that electrocuted her muscles and used a robot to teach her to walk again.
Though she still struggles to move her right side consistently, Picard's strides toward recovery have been tremendous. Her most drastic improvements have been with her formerly immobilized right arm, which she can now bend and lift high above her head.
Even more miraculously, in early September Picard took steps on her own for the first time since her injury. “I just don’t stop moving,” says Picard, who is taking time off from school and redshirting this season to preserve a year of NCAA eligibility. “I feel like I have to stay busy all the time because as soon as I stop, it’ll be harder to get going again. And I’m determined to keep getting better."
Picard’s refusal to be conquered by her plight was perhaps best displayed on July 11, when the U.S. women’s national softball team invited her to throw–yes, throw–the first pitch of an exhibition game. Picard, of course, accepted the challenge, and in front of 3,735 people at Moody Park in Ewing, N.J, she guided her once paralyzed right arm to the throwing slot, cocked it back and fired a strike to home plate.
For Picard, it was as though all the doubt and fear she had endured since April were overcome by a single pitch. “It was so emotional,” Picard says. “I just wanted to make a statement that I was knocked down and I got back up. The feeling of remembering what it’s like to release the ball was amazing, and with all those people supporting me, it felt even better.”
The support she has received–monetarily through the “Bring Back the Right Side” foundation her parents set up to raise funds for her recovery, and emotionally through the outpouring of letters and well-wishes sent to her from around the country–has given Picard unflagging hope in her journey toward complete recovery.
“The game of softball has taught me about life more than anything else,” Picard says. “There is a 70 percent failure rate in the sport, so I know what it’s like to fall and have to get back up and try again.
“I know I’ll be back. I just have a feeling that I’ll beat it and I’ll be on the field running around like an animal again. I know I will."