Gloria Suarez doesn’t let life-changing paralysis stop her from participating in her first marathon

By Jade Waddy

Gloria Suarez’s motivation and determination are inspiring.

Five years ago, Suarez began experiencing unexplainable back pain. “The pain was so unbearable, I went to the emergency room and was basically unable to stand up,” Suarez said. Doctors eventually discovered a tumor on her spine and several months later she would undergo surgery to have the tumor removed. During surgery at a hospital not affiliated with Memorial Hermann, Suarez developed a spinal hematoma which left her paralyzed from the waist down.

After a number of additional surgeries during her hospital stay, Suarez was transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann where she spent four weeks undergoing inpatient rehabilitation. “After my injury, I thought my life was over,” Suarez said. “It was a challenge not only physically, but mentally.” Suarez was introduced to her new lifestyle and how she would have to adapt, but she still needed a lot of assistance. “My mother moved in with me once I was discharged,” Suarez added.

Three months later, Suarez returned to TIRR Memorial Hermann for phase two of her inpatient rehabilitation. “It was during this time that I learned a lot on adapting to my new lifestyle,” Suarez said. “I was able to be independent once again and do things on my own with modifications such as bed transfers, dressing myself, using the restroom, showering, cooking, laundry and eventually getting my driver’s license back.”

Finding a new hobby

After discharging from TIRR Memorial Hermann, Suarez continued to adjust to her new lifestyle; however, she eventually found herself struggling with depression due to the challenges she faced. A close friend suggested she consider joining Achilles International, an organization that empowers people with disabilities to live an active lifestyle and participate in various sporting and running events.

“At first I was hesitant to join but, through my friend’s encouragement, I ultimately did,” Suarez said. “I eventually fell in love with racing and it has benefited me tremendously.”

Suarez has lost nearly 60 pounds over the last year and a half thanks to her regular exercise. “I’ve also been able to participate in so many activities outside of running events such as kayaking, yoga, horseback riding, CrossFit, wheelchair basketball, rock climbing, and skydiving.”

“It’s very impressive to see how far she has come,” said Suarez’s physician Dr. Argyrios Stampas, an attending physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at TIRR Memorial Hermann. “I remember when she first came to TIRR years ago and she was in so much pain, but through it all she’s consistently maintained a positive attitude and continues to be an inspiration to others through her positivity.”

The regular exercise has uplifted Suarez who says she feels much better about herself, and it has made her ongoing physical therapy easier.

“I’ve come a long way from when I was feeling at a low point. I even recently became a Peer Volunteer at TIRR Memorial Hermann so I can give back to the patients I can relate to,” Suarez added. “I’m now at a point where I’m able to share my experience. I want those dealing with traumatic injury or illness to know there’s hope. Life can get better, but you have to put in the work. It’s okay to have bad days but what’s important is to not give up.” 

In November, Suarez participated in her first marathon, the New York City Marathon with her friend who encouraged her to take up physical activity. She is now actively training and planning to participate in the 2020 Houston Chevron Marathon and the 2020 USA Fit Marathon in Sugar Land, Texas.

“I want to keep racing; I’ve fallen in love with the sport,” Suarez said. Her advice to anyone considering racing is to not focus on anyone else’s speed or time and to set your own goals. “I struggled with this when I first started training, but the goal is always to cross the finish line.”

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