Naomi Franco’s volleyball path to Syracuse took unexpected turn after emergency brain surgery

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Naomi Franco-Naomi Franco 4/16/2020-volleyball
Naomi Franco at an A5 practice
“(The doctors) said that I should be fine to play volleyball again. They said to take it slow until I get my bone flap back because they don’t want any damage or me to fall and hurt myself and stuff like that.
“I’ve mostly just been working out and stuff that doesn’t involve a lot of movement because I don’t want to get headaches and stuff like that to where it could hurt me. Once I get my bone flap back, I’ll be able to go back to what I was normally doing. Everything will be fine.”
— Naomi Franco

December 29, 2019, should have marked a triumphant start to Naomi Franco’s final season of club volleyball.

But when the first morning session of A5 South’s three-day Holiday Camp began, the 6-foot-3 lefty opposite wasn’t there when the rest of her 18-1 teammates warmed up.

Joe Whigham, who coached Franco on A5 South’s 17-1 team during the 2019 season, immediately sensed something must be wrong. It just wasn’t like Naomi — the product of Fayette County High School in south suburban Atlanta who had already signed with Syracuse — to miss out on a chance to train and compete. Throughout the offseason, she could often be found in the gym, working hard to improve, despite already being named a finalist for USA Today’s Atlanta Girls Volleyball Player of the Year.

Whigam’s instincts, as it turned out, were right.

Something was wrong with Franco.

Horribly wrong.

When she woke up that morning, Naomi complained of a headache and nausea, but, again, she didn’t typically miss practice. So she and her father Kwesi got in the car and headed to the gym. As they drove, Naomi sat uncomfortably in the passenger seat. When sweat began to drip down his daughter’s face, Kwesi realized this couldn’t be just a headache, and he changed course to the emergency room. Sixty seconds before he pulled up to the hospital, Naomi lost consciousness.

A CT scan revealed a brain hemorrhage. An ambulance rushed her to Egleston Hospital in Atlanta and into surgery, where doctors cut a hole in Naomi’s skull to relieve the swelling.

Kwesi and Naomi’s mother Tanya lived the next few weeks in the hospital at Naomi’s side. When she first woke up, Naomi couldn’t move the right side of her body, and she had trouble remembering things. She had to have help to do pretty much everything: Sit up, eat, get across the room to the bathroom. Just a couple months earlier, Naomi had recorded a 10-foot-9 approach jump — and the drastic change was stark and painful for her family to witness.

“The difficult thing is when you can’t do anything to really help,” Kwesi said. “You can be there to comfort, you can be there to support, but it’s a process that I cannot change. The difficult part was to see your daughter in pain and not be able to really take the pain away.

“To see her life in jeopardy and I have to just sit by and watch. It was a scary thing. As a parent, it was a humbling experience.”

Naomi Franco

Naomi felt that fear too, fear of losing her life, fear of never playing volleyball again, fear of a life forever changed.

“(When I first woke up) my memory was not that good. I would forget things, and that was kind of scary, on top of not being able to move half of my body, so that was really hard for me to process,” Naomi said.

“It was like the day before — or at least what I thought was the day before — being fine and doing everything that I usually would to being in the hospital was the hardest for me. Just thinking about my whole life has changed now and I won’t be able to do a lot of the same stuff that I was doing was really scary for me, and there’s a chance that my life is not going to be the same. I could lose a lot of the stuff that I have spent the majority of my life working for and that was, it was a hard pill to swallow.”

Naomi cried a lot, but she never fully gave in to her negative emotions. As soon as she was able to begin occupational, physical, and speech therapy, she channeled her fear into results.

“If they said they wanted her to do one lap, she would go and do two laps. If they told her to go up and down the steps five times, she would do eight times,” Kwesi said. “All of those different things that she would go above and beyond just so she could get back to where she wants to be.”

Naomi, who had 333 kills last season for Fayette County, passed every progress benchmark ahead of schedule. One day shy of a month after the initial incident, she walked out of the hospital on her own.

“Every time I’ve talked to her, whether it be a phone call, FaceTime, texting, whatever, it’s, I think she’s as positive as she can be about all of this,” Whigham said. “You could definitely tell it kind of weighed on her — there’s no way you can be prepared to deal with that.

“A kid that is 17 years old, you just don’t expect somebody who is 17 years old to be fighting for their life for something out of the blue like that. She’s handled it better than I probably would have, that’s for sure.”

Doctors assured Naomi that she can expect to live a mostly normal life, including an eventual return to the volleyball court, but not until she has another surgery to replace the piece of the skull that was initially removed. That surgery was originally scheduled for just a couple weeks from now, but it’s been pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Support from the volleyball community also helped Naomi and her family get through the worst times. A5 South coach Charlette Judge started a GoFundMe for the family, which has raised more than $6,000, and numerous coaches, teammates, and teammates’ families visited Naomi in the hospital and brought her family food.

“There were a lot of people that came forward, whether it was just taking food to their house or donating money or whatever,” Whigham said. “Her teammates were FaceTiming her so she could watch practice. We FaceTimed a couple of intraclub scrimmages — just different stuff to let her stay involved and be connected.

“It was pretty amazing because we’ve got four clubs that are in our club family, so it wasn’t just A5 South, there was a lot of outreach from different families that weren’t even in our club that just knew her, knew the situation, and just wanted to help.”

Naomi Franco

Naomi’s list of visitors even included Syracuse head coach Leonid Yelin. Yelin had been thrilled to get a commitment from Naomi and was “shocked” and “speechless” when he got word that she was in the hospital, fighting for her life.

“As a coach, you’re looking for this kind of athlete (Naomi) is,” Yelin said. “Her size, her athletic ability — it’s a no-brainer. As soon as I saw her, to be honest, I could not even believe that we could get her. And the more we got to know her, the more excited we got because besides she is a great athlete, she is a great kid too.”

Yelin arrived in Atlanta just a week after Naomi’s surgery, and he described the experience as one of the hardest in his life — to see so many children sick and dying, especially his young prospect who was in such a weakened state.

At that time, Naomi couldn’t sit up on her own, and she spoke so softly Yelin said he could barely hear her. And yet, her parents assured him she was doing so much better already than she had been.

“I was really scared,” Yelin said, “because she couldn’t even sit up on the bed without help, and he’s telling me she’s doing so much better. Can you imagine?”

The experience was so emotionally trying, Yelin can hardly remember what he said to Naomi and her family during her visit, but he will never forget what she said to him.

“She said, ‘Coach, don’t give up on me. I’ll be back,’” Yelin recalled. “Fighting for her life and she’s telling me she’ll be back — that’s a really special kid.

During that visit, Yelin promised the Francos that Naomi would not lose her scholarship, that she would have a place at Syracuse, whether she was able to return to volleyball or not.

“At that time and now, as much as, yes, I’m a coach, we need players, but I’m sorry. That’s the last thing on my mind,” Yelin said. “She has her scholarship. Don’t worry about this. I want all of us staying focused in how we can help this kid to bounce back.”

That was a relief to Naomi.

“I was scared that I was going to lose my scholarship, but Coach Yelin came and visited me while I was still in the ICU and told me that I won’t have to worry about that,” Naomi said. “(He said) they know that I’m a hard-working person and I will make sure that I’m getting back to where I was before. My scholarship is there at Syracuse waiting for me. There are going to be no problems, just to focus on getting better.”

Naomi’s plans to start school in the fall remain unchanged, although she’ll likely redshirt this year (if there even is a 2020 season, since a lot remains undecided in NCAA athletics).

During the recruiting process, Kwesi, a counselor at Smith Elementary School, pressed his daughter to think about possible colleges in terms of where she would want to attend if volleyball wasn’t a consideration. That vein of thinking helped her settle on Syracuse, the ACC school in upstate New York, where she’ll enroll in the computer art and animation program.

“By the time I got to the visit (at Syracuse), I was already decided that was the school that I wanted to go to,” Naomi said. “It was just a matter of looking at the campus and seeing what the life was like there. Even though it was cold, it was a really cool school and I loved everything about it.”

“One of the most important things we’ve learned really as a family is once your child is going to a college, you’ve basically turned over your baby to somebody, to a program, to a coaching staff,” Kwesi said. “And just the importance of doing your research, making sure it’s a program that you’re comfortable with, making sure that it’s a program that is focused on the kids and not just winning games. I think we’ve gotten that (with Syracuse.)”

Even assuming she returns to complete and perfect health and gets back to playing volleyball, both Naomi and her family are forever changed by her brush with mortality.

“Some of the things that you think are important or some of the things that you kind of get onto (kids) about, cleaning your room, this, that, and the other. Why didn’t you do this? Why didn’t you do that? It kind of made me realize in the grand scheme of things, that’s really not important at all,” Kwesi said.

“The people that you care about and the people that you love, that’s what’s really important in life, just having those people there with you, having them healthy. There’s so many things that we look at that are small things that we treat as big. This was a life reality check for me. That changed my life forever.”

For Naomi, she’s savoring time with loved ones and determined to do whatever it takes to regain her health, her performance, and her life.

“I’m really thankful to my parents, my coaches, and my teammates who have supported me through this whole process. Without it, I probably would have just given up a long time ago,” Naomi said.

“Knowing that there’s still a bright side to it and there’s people waiting for me to get better and still having belief that I’m still going to do the great things that they spoke of is really what fuels me to get to where I am today and to stay strong and do everything that I can to make sure that I’m not letting myself down as well as letting them down.”

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