Lalia Susini has learned to walk again after being partially paralyzed in a tree swing accident

By Christina Dugan
May 06, 2021 07:00 PM
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Lalia Susini is sharing her story of resilience.

In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the 12-year-old actress — best known for her role as the younger version of lead character Andy Herrera (played by Jaina Lee Ortiz) on ABC's Station 19 — opens up about the traumatic brain injury that left her partially paralyzed, the difficult recovery, and how she managed to beat the odds and learn to walk again.

On October 20, 2020, Susini was taking a break between her fifth and sixth period online classes and headed outside to enjoy the fall afternoon. As her grandfather pushed her on a tree swing, the metal fixture holding the swing broke loose, slamming into Susini's head and slashing her skull.

"I thought I was going to die," she says.

Paramedics arrived minutes later, but Susini had already suffered a stroke and lost movement and feeling on her left side.

"I was talking, and I was awake, but I thought I was dreaming," she says. "I realized I was lying on this bed, and I saw blood all running down me. I was scared. I knew it was really bad at that point."

She underwent emergency surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to relieve the mounting pressure on her brain. 

lalia susini
Credit: Courtesy Lalia Susini

Following the four-and-a-half-hour surgery, her prognosis looked bleak.

"She couldn't stand, she couldn't walk, she couldn't even get out of bed," says Dr. Kevan Craig, chief of the division of rehabilitation medicine at Children's Hospital Los Angeles and Lalia's doctor. "She was talking, and her speech was okay, but her left side was basically pretty much shut down." 

Two weeks later she was transferred to Children's Hospital Los Angeles for nearly two months of intensive physical and occupational therapy.

For more on Lalia Susini's recovery, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Susini — an avid skateboarder and soccer player, and sister to three brothers ages 8 to 14 — was determined to fight her way back to health.

A little more than a week after the accident, she gradually began to show signs of recovering her mobility.

On Dec. 23 she was discharged, three days after taking her first step with a walker.

lalia susini
Credit: Courtesy Lalia Susini

"I knew it was going to happen, so honestly I was just like, 'Finally!' " says Susini, who still has therapy five days a week to improve her motor skills and will undergo a second surgery later this year to fill in part of her skull that was removed during the original procedure. 

Now, not only has she returned to Station 19, on May 9 she's launching a line of kids' fashions called LATE Clothing and donating a portion of her sales to Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

"It means I can do anything," says Susini, who hopes to one day become a brain surgeon.

"My mom says it takes a special person to do that job, but I think it's cool helping people," she says.