Growing up, Zoey Peck was an active, sports-minded child who hit all the normal milestones everyone expected she would. A competitive volleyball player throughout her childhood and adolescence, Zoey set her sights on playing at the collegiate level – and she had the talent to do so.
“Zoey played volleyball at Marlington High School in addition to Junior Olympic (J.O.) club volleyball where she was being noticed by college recruiters,” said her mom, Angie. “The summer before Zoey’s junior year a noticeable bulge in her back developed and she started to complain about pain – something she hadn’t done before.”
“My right shoulder blade always stuck out a bit, but I chalked it up to being on my hitting side – my strong side,” said Zoey.
Neither Angie nor Zoey was terribly concerned, but the bulge needed to be evaluated. After scheduling an appointment with one of Akron Children’s spine specialists, Dr. Todd Ritzman, Angie says she had no idea what to expect.
“We had no reason to think this was going to be anything serious,” she said. “Imagine our shock when Dr. Ritzman explained that Zoey’s spine had significant curvatures in two different spots – a condition called idiopathic scoliosis – and that she would require surgery.”
According to Dr. Ritzman, adolescent idiopathic scoliosis is a spinal deformity that occurs during the adolescent growth spurt.
“The curve is often not present prior to puberty and can occasionally develop quite rapidly thereafter,” he said. “It’s not uncommon that patients and their families are surprised to discover the magnitude of their deformity.”
Complicating matters for Zoey was what this surgery would mean to a prospective college athlete.
“It was very hard to watch Zoey work so hard for so long and have her hard work and goals derailed by the diagnosis of scoliosis,” said Angie. “This motivated me to try and find an athlete with this condition thriving at the college level. I scoured the internet, but couldn’t find anyone.”
As a standout high school setter (a position that runs the team’s offense and builds up offensive scoring opportunities), Zoey had high hopes of playing in college.
“I was a junior in high school when I was diagnosed – a critical time for getting noticed and recruited,” Zoey said. “I had to make a decision about whether I was going to miss my J.O. season or sit out my senior year since the recovery takes 4 months.”
Ultimately Zoey and her parents opted to have the surgery sooner rather than later.
“In the end, my husband, Brian, and I needed to do what was best for our daughter’s health, but it was disheartening to watch the recruiters drop away,” said Angie.
That nagging question of whether Zoey would really be able to return to competitive play still loomed large in Angie’s mind. And, in what could be called a serendipitous event, Angie got her answer.
“I was home cleaning and had ESPN on,” she said. “They were doing an interview with Heidi Dyer, a collegiate volleyball player from California, who had spinal surgery at age 12 to correct her idiopathic scoliosis – the same condition Zoey had.”
Although Dr. Ritzman had already assured Angie many times that Zoey would be able to play following surgery, she reached out to Heidi for reassurance.
“Heidi and I messaged back and forth quite a bit, and she was able to put my mind at ease,” said Angie. “She said to go for it and that Zoey would be OK.”
On Feb. 9, 2017, Zoey underwent surgery.
“Fortunately, Zoey’s low back did not have significant deformity, and we were able to perform a selective thoracic fusion in which we limited the instrumented correction to her thoracic spine, enabling spontaneous correction of the curvature in her low back,” said Dr. Ritzman. “Avoiding instrumentation in the low back enabled maintenance of critical range of motion key to her athletic performance.”
Knowing how important it was to Zoey to get back to the volleyball court, Dr. Ritzman cleared her to start physical therapy 2 months later.
“My physical therapy focused on core exercises since I can’t rely on my upper back,” Zoey said. “My therapist’s daughter was also a volleyball player, so he had a unique knowledge of the skills I needed to regain.”
Zoey quickly learned returning to the court was going to be a process and there would be some things she couldn’t do.
“I was really out of shape,” she said. “I could barely walk 30 feet to my mailbox and not be out of breath.”
Zoey saw Dr. Ritzman twice during the first 6 weeks following surgery to ensure her stitches were healing and the rods were maintaining her correction.
“I always enjoy my appointments with Dr. Ritzman,” Zoey said. “He follows college sports – so he speaks my language.”
As a former college football player, Dr. Ritzman could empathize with her strong desire to return to play.
“My goal was the same as Zoey’s – to get her back on the court,” he said.
Now 20 years old and a sophomore at Ashland University, Zoey is thriving.
Slated to be redshirted her freshman year, Zoey found herself on the court when the team’s starting setter needed hip surgery.
“Zoey ended up playing every single set her freshman year,” said Angie. “She plays like nothing was ever wrong – people who don’t know her would have no idea she has a fused spine.”
Angie says the icing on the cake was Zoey being named GLIAC (Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) and Midwest freshman of the year. This year she was named All-GLIAC first team by the league’s coaches.
Zoey’s scar, which runs down three quarters of her back, has healed up so well it’s hardly noticeable. But, even when it was fresh, she wore it proudly and had no qualms about showing it off in backless dresses or bathing suits.
“I don’t want to hide what I’ve been through,” she said. “This is a battle wound that I am proud of.”
In the end, Angie says it was Zoey’s love of volleyball and the goal of returning to play that kept her motivated and moving forward.
“I remember walking with her at the hospital and telling her she would be back on the volleyball court and she had to keep trying,” she said. “Zoey is a very driven and determined girl. I am not surprised that she overcame this obstacle – she really is an inspiration.”