SYRACUSE, N.Y. (BVM) — When you watch Naomi Franco on the volleyball court, you would never know what she has overcome. The Syracuse University sophomore just finished her second year with the Orange, and recently was awarded the Syracuse Eight Courage Award by the athletic department. The university chooses to honor an athlete who has either overcome a serious injury, shown bravery and dignity in an adverse situation or overcome a disadvantaged background.
In late December 2019 during her senior year of high school, just about a month after signing her national letter of intent to play volleyball at Syracuse, Franco suffered a brain hemorrhage. Rushed to a nearby hospital, doctors there determined she needed to be moved to the Children’s Healthcare hospital in Atlanta to undergo emergency surgery. That surgery involved removing the bone flap on the left side of her skull to relieve pressure on her brain. The flap was then frozen in order to be put back in months later.
Franco was in the hospital for nearly two months. This was not the way Franco imagined finishing up her high school days. Fortunately, she had lots of support from the staff at Fayette County High School, helping her to get through the work she was missing while she was undergoing physical therapy and rehabilitation.
“It was really easy with my teachers and principal at my school and they did a really good job talking with my parents, and the tutor at the hospital to make sure I got all the work that I needed to get done,” Franco said.
Once she was released from the hospital, rigorous outpatient therapy continued until the end of the school year. Franco had to learn how to use her hands again and how to walk again.
“I recovered faster than they thought I would, mainly because I am an athlete,” Franco said. “I was very motivated and had some goals in mind to meet.”
Franco returned to the hospital for two more surgeries. The second surgery entailed putting the brain flap that had been removed during the first surgery back into place. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the third and final surgery had to be pushed back a few times. The last surgery was finally done in June 2020 and involved pinpointing the exact blood vessel that caused the brain hemorrhage. The blood vessel was treated with radiation to ensure the tear dries up over the next few years. Just three days after this procedure, Franco headed to Syracuse to meet up with the volleyball team.
“When I first got to Syracuse I was the last team member to get here because of the surgery,” Franco said. “My teammates were very supportive. I feel at home because of the people.”
Franco was determined not to let the unexpected health crisis bring her down. During her freshman year with the Orange, she made her debut against Pittsburgh in the season opener. Later that season, the right-side hitter racked up a career-high 15 kills, four digs, and four blocks against Clemson. The computer art and animation major has not been deterred in the classroom either. Franco was named to the fall 2020 athletic director honor roll.
“I was nervous about volleyball when I first got out of the hospital,” Franco said. “One of the first places I went when I got home was to see my club team even though I couldn’t even step on the court.”
Once the bone flap was back in place though, Franco wasted no time getting back to the gym to practice to be ready for Syracuse.
“It was really nice and freeing because volleyball was always something I used as an escape from life in general and to forget everything and remind myself of who I am,” Franco said.
This past season, Franco continued to improve and work hard on the volleyball court. In the season opener against Buffalo, she tallied a season-high 13 kills and nine blocks. Later in the season, she had 12 kills and six digs against South Alabama and added eight kills against North Carolina.
Franco is especially thankful to her parents, brother, and high school volleyball coach, Charlotte Judge, for helping her get back to where she is today.
“My parents would make a schedule to make sure one of them was always with me in the hospital,” Franco said. ” I was never alone. My brother was in college but would always call to check on me. Coach Judge was with me too through the whole process.”
Franco continues to get CAT and MRI scans every few months to make sure everything is healing properly. She hasn’t ruled out playing professional volleyball once she graduates from Syracuse.
“Right now my dream is still to play volleyball professionally,” Franco said. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. “Honestly I am also interested in animation. No one would be crazy enough to sit in a four-hour class if they weren’t interested.”
Regardless of where her future leads, Franco has proven she has the drive, determination and personality to succeed under any circumstances.