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If you look closely, you can see Olivia Kozuszek and her mom Heidi Russell in the audience of “The Eras Tour,” Taylor Swift’s epic concert pic. She’s the 15-year-old blond in a sparkly blue dress, tiara and a neck brace in the twelfth row. How this Valley View sophomore wound up with floor seats in Los Angeles on the third night of taping is a tale worthy of a Swift song itself.

cruel summer

Back in late June 2023, Olivia Kozuszek was having a teenager’s perfect summer. Looking forward to her fifteenth birthday and the Swift concert in Cincinnati, she was at a waterpark with friends when an expected tumble sent her world spinning.

“It was the end of the day and we all said let’s go down the slide one more time,” recalls Olivia. “I remember flipping in the air, and I landed on my neck in the water, and it all went dark. I kept saying I couldn’t move so they dragged me up on the sand. I was afraid I was paralyzed because I couldn’t feel anything. And then my arms started stinging and the lifeguard put ice on my hands because I said they were burning, but it didn’t help.”

When Olivia’s mom showed up, she wasn’t prepared for the sight of her tougher-than-nails daughter in tears. “She was sitting in a lawn chair and my friend was holding her head in place – and she was sobbing,” says Heidi. “And she is not a crier, so I knew something was really wrong.”

Olivia was rushed to the nearest emergency room. “After about five hours, they told us we could go home because they couldn’t find anything wrong with her,” Heidi says. “And I’m like I don't think that's right. You know, I know her. She’s in extreme pain. So, I asked if we could go to Dayton Children’s.”

Pediatric Level 1 Trauma Center

Olivia went straight to a trauma room in the emergency department at Dayton Children’s where a team of clinicians worked simultaneously to give Olivia the care she needed quickly.

“We knew she fell about 25 feet off a water slide,” says Scott Wyenandt, RN, clinical nurse on the trauma team. “We got her situated, assessing her, seeing what we could quickly do to make her comfortable, making sure she had a properly placed collar to minimize any movements that may unintentionally make the injury worse.”

“I knew that Dayton Children’s was a Pediatric Level 1 Trauma Center, and I knew what that meant because my son had been brought here after he was attacked by a dog a couple of years earlier,” says Heidi.  “It's like a well-oiled machine, 100%. I don't even have the words to describe how amazing it is.  There is a nurse who is with you every step of the way, explaining everything that is going on – like why they are taking blood, etc. - and it helps keep you calmer.”

Olivia in the hospital bedThe results of the assessments went to neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Lober. “Olivia suffered from too much flexion of the neck,” says Dr. Lober. “It stretched the neck out of place and tore the ligaments from behind. That caused her spine to be shifted forward. She also had a bruising of the spinal cord.

This was not going to heal on its own, so we had to prepare for surgery to get the spine corrected, but the spinal cord was swollen from the bruising. The treatment for that is keeping her blood pressure in the normal range so she had to stay in the PICU and be monitored very closely to inform the right time for surgery.”

It was difficult for Heidi to wait and watch. “I had been crying the entire time, wondering what her limitations were going to be. She lives life 100%. She is moving 24-7, just going, going, going. And to watch all these things be taken away from her, would be devastating.”

what matters to Olivia

Meanwhile the nurses were doing what they could to make the family and Olivia, comfortable. “The nurses were really nice to me – like they cared about me as a person, not just a patient,” says Olivia. “They knew I was feeling kind of crusty because I still had lake water all over me, so they washed my hair and would put it in braids and buns, so I felt pretty. They memorized my favorite stuffed animals and would tuck it them in with me when I was really tired. Little things like that that made a big difference.”

Finally, Olivia’s blood pressure stabilized enough for surgery, but the next day was her birthday. Her parents and care team left the decision to her, operate on her birthday or wait one more day.

“I chose to have surgery on my birthday,” Olivia remembers. “I woke up and my whole room was decorated in Taylor Swift stuff, and I said, Oh, this is nice. I had a nice cake. It was a Taylor Swift lyric. It said, When you're 15. So that was cute."

Olivia was hoping a successful surgery would allow her to go to the Swift concert in Cincinnati four days later. But it wasn’t meant to be. “It was it was really just a terrible situation for a teenager,” says Dr. Lober. “But she was actually really tough and was able to make a decision that was the best for her.”

The surgery opened the back of her neck and separated some of the muscles, found the ligaments that were disrupted and placed stabilizing hardware into the bones to correct the alignment of the spine and hold them in position so that she wouldn't get a worsening deformity later.

the road back

While Olivia was getting her spine repaired, Mom was working on providing something to for her to look forward to.  “I got online and was looking for someone to trade Taylor Swift tickets,” says Heidi. “I would give them our two in Cincinnati on July 1 in exchange for a concert sometime in August – anywhere in the country. Lots of people were willing to buy, but no one was up for a trade.”

Still the Swifty army is vast and mighty, and word of Olivia’s predicament went viral. “I get a message from a gentleman who says ‘I happen to be a music producer and I’m friends with Taylor’s manager,’” says Heidi. “’Send me your email and I’ll see what he can do.’ A couple of emails later, we have tickets to the third night of the LA series of concerts. I was so amazed and so grateful she could still have this moment.”

To get there, Olivia would have to work hard in physical therapy. “This was a severe injury,” says Dr. Lober. “She didn’t have the full use of her arms from the spinal cord injury. It’s never a guarantee that you’re going to get that back. That was really weighing on her.”

But like the champ she is, Olivia dove into physical therapy, with the right inspiration. “My therapist was a Swifty! So, as we worked on my strength for three months, we would listen to music.  It was really fun and I kind of miss it. Now I want to be a physical therapist because she helped me a lot.”

When it was time to head to LA, Olivia got clearance from the docs to go but it was still five days before she would be cleared to remove her neck brace. Not the news the teenager wanted to hear, but she rallied and took it in stride. “I was gonna try to take it off for some of the slower songs, but I was so entranced it didn’t even matter the neck brace was on.”

“Everything was so much bigger,” says Heidi. “There were cameras everywhere. The bracelets they hand out were huge. We exchanged tons of bracelets with everyone. We met Seth Green who was really nice.

“We did agree that she could take the brace off for a picture because I didn’t want every memory there to have a neck brace in it. We cleared an area, she took it off, posed and put it back on.”

But as it says in Swift’s song “Fifteen,” time can heal most anything and that’s certainly true for Olivia.

After two weeks in the hospital, three months in a neck brace and one memory-making trip to LA, Olivia is back to the basics. She’s on the school’s softball team and in a league out of Sandusky, cheering on her Valley View Spartan football and basketball teams, and she’s teaching the next generation.

“I lead a weekend cheer clinic that’s kindergarten through sixth grade,” says Olivia. “I make up a dance for the first graders. They are so cute!”

“It’s come full circle,” smiles Heidi. “We have the cutest videos of her at the same cheerleading clinic at five years old. She is back to herself. Back to the Olivia that we all love and know. And it's nice to see her smile all the time, to see the glow back again.”

Olivia Dayton Children's teen trauma patient

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After a tragic accident at a local water park, Olivia came to Dayton Children's Level 1 Trauma Center to receive world-class care for her traumatic spine injury.