A Sideline Seizure And Brain Surgery Is Just The Start Of Jordan Cruz's Story

Courtesy Denise Tahara

Jordan Cruz says she had trouble remembering plays after undergoing brain surgery. Her dad says she couldn't identify a giraffe.

Jordan Cruz mostly recalls that she needed a break.

The 15-year-old freshman had just grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a putback for McClatchy (Sacramento, California), when she pulled on her jersey to signal to coach Jessica Kunisaki that she needed to come out of that Feb. 4, 2014, varsity girls' basketball game.

When she arrived at the bench, Cruz's teammates asked if she was OK. They got only silence in return.

When the halftime buzzer sounded, with McClatchy enjoying a comfortable lead, everyone jogged toward the locker room. Everyone except Cruz, who sat silently on the bench.

How do they expect us to play and not worry about her? It was so scary to me.
Sara Shimizu

Motionless.

Turning back, an alarmed Kunisaki called for Cruz's parents, Kenny and Lori, to come out of the stands. After a few horrifying moments, there was realization that something was wrong. Really wrong. The Cruzes picked up their daughter, carried her to their car and rushed to the hospital.

"As a parent," Lori Cruz said, "you're freaking out."

Cruz had suffered an absence seizure; usually characterized by a loss of consciousness sometimes as brief as a few seconds, but hers lasted 30 minutes. While she was being checked into the hospital, her panicked teammates were left behind to somehow post a 55-37 win over Rosemont (Sacramento).

"I couldn't even think straight," McClatchy guard Sara Shimizu said. "How do they expect us to play and not worry about her? It was so scary to me."

It was disconcerting to the doctors in the emergency room, who gave Cruz medication before sending her home and referring her to a neurologist for tests. Within a couple of days, the diagnosis was at hand.

"I walked into the doctor's office, and he just spits out, 'Jordan, you need to have brain surgery, yesterday,' " Cruz said. "I was shocked. I just started crying."

***

Ever since she was a child, Cruz has always been a handful. She wasn't just walking at nine months -- she was running.

Once, when she and her younger brother were left alone with their unsuspecting dad, the toddlers -- in a matter of unsupervised seconds -- spread peanut butter over seemingly every stitch of furniture in the house.

Another time, when she was 2 or 3 years old, a misbehaving Cruz was told by her parents to go to her room as punishment.

"You go to your room," Cruz responded, hands on hips and flat-out adorable.

The headaches, nausea and dizziness hit when she was about 12. But the strange symptoms didn't strike often -- maybe once every couple months -- so she barely slowed down.

"My parents thought it was hormonal or teenage stuff," Cruz said. "I thought maybe it was that I had suffered a concussion playing in a tournament. But it didn't happen that often, so we didn't think it was a big deal."

***

The diagnosis was arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal tangle of arteries and veins in the brain.

Cruz had three procedures -- one per day over a three-day span -- and each lasted more than six hours.

Courtesy the Cruz family

Jordan Cruz, who had been experiencing bouts of headaches, nausea and dizziness since she was 12, endured more than 18 hours of brain procedures over three days.

The first was an angiography. Surgeons went in through Cruz's thigh, all the way to her brain, to assess the problem.

On the second day, the surgeons fixed the problem.

"It's like plumbing," Kenny said. "She had two major pipes that were carrying her blood to the wrong place. These are high-pressure valves. They had to plug the hole and rewire the brain."

The third procedure was much like the first -- surgeons wanted to see if they had gotten everything corrected. They had.

Still, the aftermath of the surgery was "depressing," Kenny said.

"After her third surgery, Jordan couldn't speak at first," Kenny said. "The rewiring had affected her short-term memory and speech."

Kenny said Jordan correctly identified a picture of a cat, but when she couldn't name a giraffe or a rhinoceros, he had to leave the room, sobbing. His son, Jake, now 15, asked if Jordan would have to return to first grade.

"I told him: 'I have no idea,' " Kenny said.

***

Jordan has made a miraculous recovery, but it's been a bumpy road. Her GPA, which had been a 3.8, slipped to a 2.0 as a sophomore.

Cruz's relationships suffered, too. Friends, not realizing the effects of the surgery, would get upset when it seemed as if Jordan wasn't paying attention to their conversations.

Her parents were frustrated when Jordan would do things that previously had not been in her nature.

Jordan said the anti-seizure medication produced side effects, including mood swings.

I would cry. I would talk back to my parents. I would annoy my brother. He would annoy me. No one was used to this.
Jordan Cruz

"I was very sensitive," she said. "I would cry. I would talk back to my parents. I would annoy my brother. He would annoy me. No one was used to this. We had to change the way things were working in the house."

Things weren't working on the court at the start of her sophomore season, either. She was out of shape -- understandably -- and she would get dizzy if she pushed too hard. It was difficult to focus on what her coaches were saying, and she would forget plays.

"I was thinking of quitting basketball -- that's how bad it was," Cruz said.

Coach Kunisaki said the change was dramatic.

"Before we knew anything was wrong, she was innocent and sweet-hearted," Kunisaki said. "The only symptom was that she would get headaches at least once a week and would have to miss a game or a practice.

"After she came back [from surgery], she was moody. You didn't know which Jordan to expect each day. It was a mystery.

"As a group, we tried to stay consistent around her to create normalcy."

The plan worked. Cruz, a starter, finished her sophomore season by helping McClatchy become the first Sacramento City Unified School District girls' team to win a state title in any sport.

Cruz's heroics came in the semifinals, when the 5-foot-10 shooting guard scored 19 points, including four 3-pointers, in a 58-49 win over No. 2 Oak Ridge (El Dorado Hills). McClatchy went on to beat Serra (Gardena, California) 65-61 in a double-overtime championship game.

"It was the best feeling ever," Cruz said of winning the title. "When we won, I immediately thought of how my team and I pushed through our injuries or whatever we were going through and how much heart and commitment we put out on the floor."

***

Cruz, who has been told it takes a year or two for the brain to recover from surgery, is back and better than ever for her junior season. Her appetite is voracious.

Courtesy Denise Tahara

Averaging 17.3 points per game, Jordan Cruz is thinking about a second straight state title for McClatchy.

"She eats like a 300-pound linebacker," Shimizu said. "She can eat a whole cow."

Cruz's GPA has returned to a 3.8, she is the captain and leading scorer (17.3 points per game) on the basketball team, and colleges -- including Washington and Stanford -- are recruiting her. She is hoping to lead the Lions to a repeat state championship.

And after Gigi Garcia, a 6-3 senior forward who has committed to the University of Washington, suffered a serious knee injury in July, it put even more responsibility on Cruz.

"Jordan is our best player," Kunisaki said. "She has to rebound, defend, create for herself and for others. All the kids look up to her. She holds our team together."

Cruz seems to be on her way to eclipsing her father as the best athlete in the family.

Kenny was a backup quarterback at Illinois behind Jack Trudeau, playing on the 1983 team that won the Big Ten title, going 9-0 in conference play and finishing 10-2 overall after a loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

Now it's Jordan's turn to shine.

Her parents say Cruz is a natural at everything she does, whether it's guitar lessons or tennis or especially golf, where she has a knack for hitting long drives.

"She gets on a snowboard, and she just rocks it," Lori said. "She's so strong-willed.

"The best way to describe Jordan is to say she is a tenacious fighter."

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