How COVID Saved Me

Peters Township resident Sam Petrarca finds his way back from a life-altering event.

By Britt Fresa
for Summit Physical Therapy


In May 2020, just two months into the COVID pandemic, normal life had already changed across the country. Amid shut-downs, layoffs, masks and stay-at-home orders, what used-to-be paled in comparison to reality.

But, for then Peters Township High School senior, Sam Petrarca, all he knew was graduation was just around the corner. A standout guard on the varsity basketball team, Sam had run, jumped, pivoted and shot his way to success. “I loved playing basketball at Peters,” says Sam. “I was ready to move on and play in college at Penn State-Behrend. It was exactly where I wanted to be and what I envisioned for myself.”

A player since he was a kid, he went into high school the shortest on the team and grew to 6’4” in the years to come. “When I made varsity my sophomore year, it was a huge confidence booster. I didn’t get a lot of playing time at first, which is typical, but I still improved every season.”

It was also in May when Sam began noticing some minor back pain. “When you play sports, there’s always something that hurts or aches. I mentioned it to my parents, but we took the ‘wait and see’ approach, especially since the season had ended and we all felt it would go away with some rest.” But the pain really didn’t go away. Sam just lived with it throughout the summer.

In August, the weekend before heading off to Penn State, Sam made a quick trip to Ohio to visit his older brother at school. Upon returning, he left for college on Monday and by Tuesday night, started feeling ill. “I had a fever and a cough and just generally didn’t feel good. My back pain had also gotten worse.”

Sam playing basketball

Sam playing basketball

By Tuesday, Sam was at the school medical center, which sent him directly to the hospital for an x-ray of his chest because his heart rate was high.

“My basketball coach, Dave Niland, gave me a ride to the hospital,” says Sam. “He waited in the parking lot and stayed in contact with my parents because we didn’t know exactly what was wrong. That evening my dad came to pick me up and by Wednesday morning, I was back at home recovering from COVID fighting a cough and severe back pain.”

Sam quarantined at home to recover from COVID. “It didn’t last too long but my back pain was unbearable! My only choice was to go to the ER. They did a CT scan, which eventually led to an MRI where the news about my condition was confirmed. The pain I had been experiencing since May was caused by an aneurysmal bone cyst (cyst). It was growing on my Thoracic spine between the T7 and T11 vertebrae and was eating away the bone.”

The news was devastating and turned Sam’s life upside down. “I was all set for college life and basketball but was back at home after only two days. On October 9, I had a 7.5-hour surgery performed by Pediatric Neurosurgeon, Stephanie Greene, M.D., at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She told us after, had I waited another month, I may have been paralyzed. It was difficult news to hear for my whole family.”

Sam X-Ray

Sam’s cyst was in the T9 vertebra, causing spinal cord compression, and had consumed approximately the right half of the vertebra. On the morning of surgery, Dr. Greene identified lower extremity weakness, poor balance and difficulty walking. The surgery consisted of spinal cord decompression and fusion of the T7 to T11 vertabrae. The cyst was removed and replaced with a metal mesh cage.

“Sam developed weakness first noticed on the very day of surgery. I would say we got him into the OR just in time to preserve his strength,” says Dr. Greene. “I think his fantastic recovery is largely due to his perseverance and grit. Hard work pays off, and athletes know that better than anybody else. He translated his determination to excel at basketball into a determination to make the best recovery he could. He’s continuing to make great  progress. A surgery like this generally takes a year for recovery. He is well ahead of schedule.”

After surgery, Sam spent two days in rehab at the Lemieux House. By October 21, he was at Summit Physical Therapy to begin his rehabilitation.

“When we first met Sam, he was in quite a bit of pain. He’d been through a lot,” says Summit Physical Therapist Assistant, Sara Soubie. “His surgery was serious and significant and included two metal rods, nine screws and a cage to hold his spine in place. We knew only a dedicated patient who’s willing to work consistently is going to improve. That’s what we’ve seen in Sam.”

Sam 2

Sam 6

During the past six months, Sam has made his way steadily through his recovery and therapy. “It’s such a slow process,” says Sam. “I was in a lot of pain in the beginning from the surgery and I’ve had to work on my balance, stamina, strength, gait, almost everything. But comparing Day One to now…there is no comparison. Summit’s approach to my rehab has been great and they have an Anti-Gravity Treadmill that’s perfect. I feel so much better and stronger. Everyone there has kept me motivated and wanting to work hard.”

Sam 5

“From a treatment perspective, patients like Sam are special,” says Mark Mascio, co-owner and treating physical therapist at Summit. “There are a lot of different aspects to consider, not only the extensive nature of his surgery and recovery, but also his needs and wants. We spend a lot of time getting to know what’s important to him and then establish short and long-term goals that are in tune with him. And since he is an athlete, his mindset is such. So, we re-address those goals as he improves. It helps us gauge how the therapy is working and how to keep him motivated and strong physically and mentally.

“We are all rooting for Sam because we know his dream is to get back on the basketball court. He’s a great young man and terrific basketball player so we work on skills and therapies that will help him get there. He recently began shooting basketball again and doing some lay ups. He’s doing a wonderful job and has really clicked with the staff in our McMurray clinic. We are very happy for his success and happy to cheer him on.”

At the end of the day, Sam knows he’s a lucky guy. “Had I not gotten COVID I don’t know where I’d be. It was a true blessing in disguise,” he says. “I never dreamed this would have happened to me, but I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned I’m going to have good and bad days; I need to be patient with my recovery as my body grows new bone in my spine; and therapy is the most beneficial thing for me for the foreseeable future. Also, the therapists at Summit have been great and I cannot thank them enough. They know what they’re doing.”

Sam 8

Sam plans to return to college and looks forward to getting back on the basketball court.

About Summit Physical Therapy Summit

Physical Therapy is independently owned and operated by Nicholas J. Martin, PT, OMPT, and Mark Mascio, PT, CHT, CWCE. Since 1993, Summit Physical Therapy has delivered thousands of healing treatments to communities and residents in five locations: Weirton, Follansbee, New Cumberland and Chester, WV, and McMurray, PA. They use a unique combination of positive motivation, personal attention and hands-on techniques to help thousands achieve healthier, more active lives.

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Stephanie Greene, M.D. works in the Pediatric Neurosurgery Program at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She is the Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. She is also Director of Vascular Neurosurgery, Director of Perinatal Neurosurgery, Pediatric Neurosurgery Fellowship Director, and Neurosurgery Residency Site Program Director, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.