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Faces of the Week: Zoe Foster of Woodholme Elementary School

Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. “Face of the Week” introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.

Face of the Week

Julie Kramer still remembers the moment last August when she and other teachers from Woodholme Elementary School crowded around Zoe Foster’s hospital bed and watched quietly as the rising second-grader fought for her life.

“We didn’t think she was going to make it,” says Kramer, a school counselor at Woodholme. “We were preparing for the worst.”

Zoe had entered the hospital on Aug. 1 for surgery that was designed to straighten her legs. This was her fifth operation in the past five years – her second just that year – and like those earlier procedures, it was calculated to address a variety of birth conditions that forced Zoe to walk in a semi-flexed position. She also was afflicted with scoliosis, a condition that results in often severe curvatures of the spine.

Hopes were high that Zoe would bounce back from this surgery just as she had from her earlier procedures. When she was 3, she had metal rods implanted to help straighten her spine; additional surgeries would lengthen the rods to accommodate her growing body. After that initial surgery, says her mother, Kenya Foster, “She walked within two weeks!”

And earlier in 2017, in the spring, Zoe had again entered the hospital for an operation to lengthen her “growing” rods. And, again, her family – Kenya, dad Brook, and little brother Xavier – were encouraged when Zoe was back on her feet in time to participate in Woodholme’s Field Day in May and to be flower girl in a wedding.

The August operation was supposed to be an outpatient procedure, Kenya Foster says, but something went horribly wrong. During the operation, doctors lost Zoe’s pulse and wouldn’t find it again for another 30 agonizing minutes. Twice, doctors considered calling for her time of death.

But Zoe rallied each time and pulled through, surviving the surgery and moving to the pediatric intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins, connected to a blinking array of computer monitors and instruments. For 21 days, Zoe lay there, each passing hour a small victory.

“(They) gave her likelihood of survival (as) minimal,” Foster says, noting that she was told Zoe had just a 1-3 percent chance of pulling through. But, Foster says, she “showed everyone how tough and determined she was to live.”

Across town, Kramer remembers getting the initial, hopeful messages from Kenya Foster, first that Zoe was awake, then breathing on her own, and then that she was talking. Zoe was alive, but everyone knew she had a long way to go, too.

She lived through her operation and began extensive therapy at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. She also began using a wheelchair. And to help with her recovery, she and her family set a special goal as the start of her second-grade year at Woodholme approached.

At the school’s Back-to-School Night, just weeks after they had stood at her bedside wondering if she would even survive her ordeal, Zoe’s teachers watched, amazed, as the second-grader came through the school’s front doors to drop off her supplies for the start of school.

Goal accomplished.

“Zoe was so determined,” her mother says. “(Her) strength and determination to still strive and do well in school, despite her setback and now being in a wheelchair, is just beyond amazing.”

“None of us could believe what we were seeing,” recalls Julie Kramer.  “It truly is hard to put into words what . . . we witnessed.

“She was – she is – a miracle.”

Finding normal

For her part, Zoe seems unruffled by the fuss. Today, almost a school year later from that Back-to-School night, she has successfully navigated school and adjusted to the occasional schoolyard stare or question about her legs or wheelchair. At 8 years old, she excels in her school work despite still having to do therapy both at Woodholme and at Kennedy Krieger.

“In the past year, some kids have asked about Zoe. They’ve wondered about her,” Kramer says. “Kids are curious, and kids have questions.”

“I just tell them, ‘That’s how God made me,’” Zoe says.

So far this school year, Zoe has missed just five days of school – all for doctor’s visits. And she continues to impress everyone she meets. “The courage Zoe showed entering our classroom after the start of the year was tremendous. When she arrived, she was a little shy but she fell right into all of our classroom routines,” says her Grade 2 teacher, Jenna McRae. “Zoe is very resilient and determined to make progress and is extremely independent.”

Zoe says math is probably her favorite subject, though she likes gym and pretty much anything that takes her outdoors. Away from school, she enjoys playing basketball and riding her bike, which she can do with a bit of effort. She plays dolls with Xavier – he with a Superman figure and she with her American Girl doll, Kendall, which “I got when I was in the hospital.”

Field Day is still her favorite day of the year; it’s usually hot on those days, she says, and she enjoys a game where “you can drop a bucket of water on your head; it feels really good.” She also enjoys – and participates – in some of the day’s races and outdoor games.

Her mother, meanwhile, credits Woodholme Elementary School with helping Zoe to build the wherewithal to make it through the school year. “The support of Woodholme School has been extremely helpful in welcoming, helping, and supporting Zoe’s seamless transition back to school and now, soon to be third-grader,” she says.

Adds Kramer, “All of her teachers love her and are happy to help her in any way they can. Zoe has the hearts of many of the staff members here.”

Hopes and plans

These days, when she does think of all she’s been through, Zoe adopts a typically pragmatic attitude. “Sometimes it was scary” in the hospital, she says, but it’s apparent she learned from her harrowing hospital stay to focus on the future as a way to get through.

“I kept thinking about getting home and that it was important to get back to school,” she says. “And I wanted to see my brother.”

And while her courage is undeniable and her progress substantial, her day-to-day accomplishments are more the incremental variety. “I can crab-walk,” she says. “I can crawl. I can get out of bed by myself.” She helps her family with chores like sweeping floors, and she dreams of a time when she can go back to the beach. Before her operation last summer, she and the family visited Virginia Beach where she delighted in discovering sea shells scattered across the sand like treasure.

Now, she says, she’d like to someday visit Hawaii, “because of the waves and sand,” and perhaps live in New York, because she also likes big cities.  And she hopes someday to become a dentist, she says, “because I like to fix teeth.”

The future holds serious challenges, though. Zoe will have to undergo more surgeries, perhaps at least once each year simply to lengthen the metal rods in her spine. And she will continue to work towards gaining more mobility in her legs.

But here, too, her spirit is unshakeable. When asked what she would tell other children going through the kinds of challenges she has faced, she says, “I would tell them that it’s going to be okay. I’d tell them, ‘I’ve been through this, too.’”

That’s her daughter, Kenya Foster says. “Zoe is a true example of nothing being impossible,” she says. “Don’t (focus on) what you deem a challenge, but look at your limitless abilities and possibilities.”

And that’s the Zoe that Julie Kramer knows, too, and will always remember. Zoe never complains about her situation or feels sorry for herself, Kramer says, and she still thinks of her as the child she first met as a diminutive kindergarten student at Woodholme’s Sneak-a-Peek night, all that time and tribulation ago.

“She was sweet, smart, and so kind then, and all of that remains true today,” Kramer says. “Zoe is one of those students who I will remember forever, even after she is long gone from Woodholme.”

Do you know of a special person who would be a good candidate for the BCPS “Face of the Week”? Let us know! Send their name, contact information, and what makes them special to  

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