It has been almost four years since former Valley Tech softball star Bella Picard fractured her neck diving into second base in the first inning of a game at Fordham during her sophomore season at St. Joseph's University.
"I'm not sick of telling my story," Picard said during a recent interview at her family's home.
Picard lost feeling and movement on the right side of her body when her fifth cervical vertebra (C5) was broken. In the last 45 months, she has undergone numerous surgeries, dealt with complications of C5 spinal injuries, like two bouts of pneumonia and autonomic dysreflexia (sudden onset of high blood pressure), which caused her to black out, as well as a right knee issue.
She continues to rehab on an outpatient basis at Spaulding Rehabilitation in Framingham, and in Florida, where she lives part of the year with her grandmother. Picard has found the warm weather very beneficial.
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Through it all, Picard, 23, has remained determined, defiant, confident, inspiring and unwavering in her faith.
She has progressed from wheelchair to walker to cane to — yes! — walking on her own. She remains paralyzed below her right knee — her lovable yellow Lab, Benny, drops her three lower-leg braces on her bed every morning — but has regained a little bit of plantar flexion in her right foot. Always a workout devotee, Picard's cropped shirt revealed her sculpted arms and abs.
"In some aspects (I'm ahead of where doctors thought I would be)," Picard said. "I kept progressing last year and they were like, 'Oh, yeah. Maybe we should get her to journey forward, get her running.' Then my knee started happening. Then they say, 'Maybe she's plateaued. Maybe this is the best it will get.' That's their professional medical opinion and that's where I'm like, 'Nah. Nah. Nah.' "
Picard focuses on the future and on hopefully getting her own apartment in Florida soon — "I'm almost independent," she said.
She also recently revisited the past. It was a powerful, emotional and enduring moment, and another part of the healing process as she moves forward.
In the first inning of the first game of St. Joseph's doubleheader against Fordham on April 18, 2015, Picard reached on a one-out single. On a hit-and-run play, she took off for second base. As she went to slide head first and Fordham shortstop Allie Bradian came across to cover, both at full speed, Picard's head and Bradian's knee collided.
Picard was knocked out and taken to the hospital.
"This is what you see in a football game, not on a softball field," Bradian recalled of that chilling instant.
After the games, Bradian walked over to the nearby Walgreens to get Picard a card. They didn't know each other, so Bradian wasn't sure what to write, but she gave the card to the St. Joe's coach the next day. No details of Picard's condition had been made public yet.
"I don't remember when I officially realized, 'This is bad,' " Bradian said. "It was just sitting in my heart really heavy."
Time went on, their lives went on.
Bradian, a pre-med student at Fordham, sent Picard a couple more notes and a Christmas card in 2017.
"Something sparked in me like, 'Wait, this might be something God is pointing at,' " Picard said.
They soon connected on Facebook, talked on the phone and set up a time to meet, on April 18, the three-year anniversary of the accident, at Fordham's field.
"It was like a movie," Picard said. "It was pouring rain. It was just us and we were like, 'We're really doing this.' "
The field was covered in tarp.
"The first thing I said to Allie is that's so symbolic," Picard said. "(What happened) is dead and buried. We both started crying.
"She said, 'I just have to say that I'm sorry,' " Picard said, "and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh. Stop.' But for her, for me to forgive her, she needed that. That was healing for her."
"I did need that forgiveness from her," Bradian said. "Once I got it from her, I needed to forgive myself. I know it wasn't my fault, but at times life happens, you get busy and I think I just needed to forgive myself for forgetting at times. I couldn't forgive myself because I just felt like I wasn't living my life good enough for what had happened and what didn't happen to me."
Honestly, Picard said, there was nothing to forgive.
"All those cards and with everything she was doing," Picard said, "if I could go back and tell her, 'Hey, I'm probably not going to talk to you much because life is pretty crazy, but I'm making this full recovery for you. We're going to do this.' If I could go back and say that, I think that would have helped her with her feelings over the years."
Picard and Bradian have become close friends.
"God is working in our lives every day," said Bradian, 25, of East Greenwich, New Jersey, who was visiting Picard last Friday, "but it takes a really strong person to forgive to such an extremity where most people would get bitter. For her not to is just amazing. We talk all the time and if we were in each other's shoes we would be doing the same thing."
Her meeting with Bradian and their new-found friendship is the inspiration for Picard's new video series #BRINGBACKTHERIGHTSIDEDIARY.
Picard and Bradian made the video in November and December on ballfields here and near Bradian's house in New Jersey. They played catch for the first time.
Each chapter of the diary will feature an amazing person Picard has met since the accident that has made a significant impact on her life.
Chapter 2, which is near completion, is about Meredith Koch, the first friend Picard made during her two-month stay at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. Denna Laing, the former professional ice hockey player who suffered a spinal cord injury in the 2016 Outdoor Women's Classic, and Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers football player who was paralyzed while making a tackle in a 2010 game, are planned for future chapters.
"The series had been in my head," Picard said, "and then becoming friends with Allie it was God saying, 'Do it.' My idea for #BRINGBACKTHERIGHTSIDEDIARY is you all know my story, I broke my neck diving into a base, was paralyzed on the right side and I've been fighting ever since. Now, let me motivate you with all the other people I've met who have not only done this, but who do that and not only do that, they've introduced this and make this whole process easier.
"When I finished Chapter 1 and posted it," Picard said, taking a deep breath, "I was like, it helps."
Bradian, who works as a research fellow for Rothman Orthopaedics in Pennsylvania, has applied to med school but has recently begun thinking of a different career path.
"I did some soul searching," she said. "I think I need a more personal connection. I don't know if I want to be a surgeon anymore. I don't know if I want to do the fixing, the first part. I think I want to not only fix the person's body but also internally and mindfully help fix them. Some of the most important parts of recovery from injuries I've had was physical therapy and Bella talks, too, about her physical therapists. Without them, she wouldn't be where she is."
Picard has done some public speaking in Florida, and she and Bradian would like to talk to teams and at clinics here and around the country, share their stories and perspectives and help prepare young players for the mental aspect of softball and sports.
Picard's therapists at Spaulding in Framingham are working on her neck. "The original problem," she said. "You forget. The paralysis distracts everyone from 'this broke,' so that's been nice. It's feeling better."
The title of Chapter 2 in the diary is "Find Your Strength," and Picard does, every day, courageously and resiliently, through her faith, and with the love and support of her family and friends, and those who have been an incredible part of her extraordinary journey.
"In the video with Meredith," Picard said, "I talk about how much she helped me and she talks about how much I helped her. It's been healing. I never put a period on my story. The amazing people I've met since my accident, they are part of my story now."