The April sun shines down on a picture-perfect afternoon as Liza Gabrek watches her teammates on the Lyons Township High School girls soccer team run through practice drills.
She is reflecting on the moment one year ago when her playing career was halted and her life changed forever.
Gabrek, then a junior, was playing against Libertyville in a Pepsi Showdown game at Bennett Field when she suffered a major stroke. She doesn’t remember any of it, though her coaches and teammates will never forget.
“I didn’t know I was having a stroke,” Gabrek said. “Up until I arrived at Loyola [University Medical Center] I couldn’t remember what was happening, but according to my mother and my father, they said I slowly started to stop playing and made my way off the field, where [trainers] diagnosed me having a stroke.”
The stroke was caused by a rare congenital condition called MoyaMoya disease, in which blood vessels in the brain are abnormally small and clustered together.
Gabrek, who was in a coma for several days, underwent four hours of neurosurgery, during which her skull was cut open and the blood drained from the affected region of her brain. The operation was a success, though Gabrek’s ordeal was just beginning.
“They had to cut all around my head to get to this vein and get the blood out,” Gabrek said. “It’s really hard to find but they found it in my situation, which was really cool.
“They were able to fix it and cure me. What the doctors did was so amazing.”
Gabrek’s ongoing recovery, which could take up to five years, is even more amazing. Paralyzed on her left side, she could not walk or talk.
After a five-week stay at Loyola, Gabrek spent 14 weeks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. She now splits her time between her home and a local rehab facility.
Gabrek has made huge strides. She has returned to school, taking two classes at LTHS and others through home tutoring, and will graduate on time next month. Though she is unable to play, Gabrek remains a co-captain and attends all games and practices.
“She is such an inspiration,” LTHS senior goalie Lidia Breen said. “She was always an inspiration even before it happened but I think it would be very easy to get discouraged by everything that happened to her and take it as a sign that she shouldn’t work hard.”
Indeed, the daily physical and occupational therapy sessions, which will continue indefinitely, have been grueling.
“There were definitely times when I questioned whether I was going to make it through therapy,” Gabrek said. “Therapy wore me out in general so it was very difficult to get through day by day. It will be a long progression.”
The mental battle has been just as difficult as the physical.
“It was tough coming back and not knowing a lot of what was going on in the world,” Gabrek said. “I kind of had to start relearning first how to write, which was the first big step, and then learning how to talk, which was huge.
“In my first weeks at Loyola I wasn’t making too much of a noise, but then once I started talking it was like full sentences again, so that was a relief to know that I was finally alive again.”
Through it all, Gabrek was awash in love and support from her parents, Pete and Elaine, siblings, teammates and members of the community, who gave the family six months’ worth of meals and held fundraisers for her.
“So many people have made me meals and have just taken time out of their day to say ‘hi’ to me,” Gabrek said. “That has been the nicest and kindest thing the community has done for me.”
Gabrek’s mother has been amazed by the outpouring of support.
“We’ve gotten such amazing support from neighbors, friends and community,” Elaine said. “It’s one of those things you never want to test, but we can’t say enough good things.
“I think [Liza’s struggle] teaches you to live in the present and to find the positives in however life is presenting to you at that moment. There’s certainly times when it’s not easy. You just have to believe that there’s a path that you’re on and you’re supposed to be there.”
LTHS coach Bill Lanspeary still chokes up when talking about Gabrek’s stroke.
“It was beyond scary,” Lanspeary said. “It was really, really hard. It was hard personally and then hard as a coach to try to work with them.
“But they’re a great family. She’s got so many club friends and people who know her, so hopefully she’s feeling the love and inspiration from them, too.”
The Gabrek family has had a big impact on the LTHS soccer program. Brothers Ben, Sam, Peter and Liza’s twin, Leo, all were starters for the boys team. Liza became a starter as a freshman, when she beat rival Hinsdale Central with her first career goal.
A great athlete and diligent student, Gabrek also has an effervescent personality that endears her to her peers, who elected her Homecoming queen last fall. That spirit remains.
“She’s one of my closest friends and I can honestly say I’m blessed just to know her and have her in my life,” Breen said. “She’s a fun-loving person and she is still the life of the team. She’s still the same old Liza and she’s someone we can all look up to.”
Gabrek plans to enroll at Loyola and become a nurse in order to give back. She wants to pass on the lessons she has learned to other young stroke victims.
“One thing I’ve learned is that life definitely isn’t a guarantee,” Gabrek said. “One day you can be all happy and playing soccer for one of the best teams in the state, then the next day have a stroke that could be the end to your life.
“[My advice] is don’t give up. The don’t-give-up factor is probably the biggest component to recovery. When you give up, that’s probably the easiest thing you can do, but when you don’t give up, that’s when you recover.”