You may have seen Lalia Susini after she landed her first big role on ABC’s hit TV show, “Station 19”. Lalia, a sweet-natured young lady was quite poised as she recalled a horrible accident that happened to her at just 11 years old. “My grandfather was pushing me on the swing,” an ordinary day, a grandfather and granddaughter having a pleasant time on a porch swing. When unexpectedly, the swing hanger unbolts and hits the back of Lalia’s head. She’s thrusted forward, and apart from dreamlike visions, she doesn’t remember what happened after that. On a lovely, rainy Los Angeles afternoon, Lalia connected with ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan and medical editor Dr. Tom Chappell to share her story and what she’s looking forward to.
Lia Martirosyan: Lalia, how is your day going?
Lalia Susini: Good. Today I went to OT (Occupational Therapy) and physical therapy for the first time after my surgery for my arm.
Martirosyan: Two therapy sessions already, what was the surgery for?
Susini: Yeah. I’ve had three surgeries so far, and I’m sure I have a lot more left. But I had surgery for my arm to help get my fingers and my wrist fully working again because I had nerve damage from the stroke, so I got a nerve replacement.
Martirosyan: Oh! How recently did you have the surgery?
Susini: March 2nd, so about four weeks ago.
Martirosyan: Are you feeling good?
Martirosyan: Good! Would you like to share how this all began?
Susini: All right. So, I was on a swing on October 22nd of 2020. It was a swing—I don’t know how to explain it, it was like an O-ring, kind of, but it was nailed into a circle at the end. There was a little swing attached to it. I was swinging with my grandpa, and he pushed me, and I felt—the swing came out of the ceiling and right into the back of my head. Yeah. Then I fell forward. I would say a minute later maybe I had a stroke. A couple minutes after that, station 97 showed up and they got me to the hospital and started brain surgery.
Martirosyan: Wow! How old were you?
Susini: I was 11.
Martirosyan: Were you cognizant of what was happening?
Susini: Well, I think my body went into shock. I was aware of what was happening, but when I first—I don’t really remember it going into my head and falling. I remember being on the ground. I was a little confused at first, but I kind of had an idea of what was going on.
Martirosyan: When you came to the realization of what happened, what were you thinking?
Susini: Well, I think I didn’t realize what had fully happened until I woke up from surgery later that night. I had thought something else had fallen on my head. My mom explained to me what had happened and I kind of got an idea of what happened. I was like, “Wow! This is going to be a long road!” I don’t know. I think I was kind of in shock.
Martirosyan: Understandably so. Was your first acting role on Station 19?
Susini: Yes. I think in 2019.
Martirosyan: 2019 on Station 19.
Susini: (laughs) Yes.
Martirosyan: I’m sure that was exciting?
Susini: Yeah. (laughs) I was so excited! I think it was the beginning of season four when I had my accident. Maybe two episodes and then I had the accident. I returned for one episode that season, and I haven’t returned for the next season because of my surgery.
Martirosyan: Had you ever thought about traumatic brain injury (TBI) or what it meant?
Susini: You know, I feel like I never had—I never knew anybody who went through that and I didn’t have an idea of what it was like until it happened to me.
Someone at Station 19, also had a TBI. When I first got back to the set, my first time after the accident, he was there and he welcomed me back. It was so cool. I never knew he had a TBI, and it was just so cool to hear other people’s stories. I would have never known that anything had happened to him if it hadn’t happened to me. It’s so cool how many people you meet and you don’t know their stories until it happens to you.
Martirosyan: Absolutely! Are you involved in getting to know other people’s stories who have gone through similar experiences?
Susini: I love hearing other people’s stories. it’s like—I don’t know how to explain, but it’s so crazy to hear other people’s stories, too. I have so many friends in hospitals where terrible things happened to them, and they’re all incredible. That’s why I named some of my clothes after Ethan and Jack. I’ve met some really cool people who have amazing stories.
Martirosyan: Let’s talk about your adaptive clothing?
Susini: I have some of my clothes. These [shows clothing] aren’t the adaptive ones, these are just the regular ones. I’m wearing one of the Valentine’s Day t-shirts right now. We do have adaptive clothing, and I’ve been having to wear—I had a cast on my arm and I just got it off and got this [points to splinter] put on, but before that, I couldn’t fit into any sweatshirts, anything. I was wearing my stuff because I needed adaptive clothing. We made adaptive clothing because when I was in the hospital, I remember that it was so hard to get anything over my head. I had a cast when I was in the hospital, PICC lines and IVs, and it was hard to get anything over that. I had a lot of friends with g-tubes and catheters. It was really hard. We had to wear hospital gowns, and when you’re in a hospital, you don’t want to be in a hospital gown, lying in your bed all day. I would like to be in something cute and comfortable. So that’s why.
Martirosyan: That’s where you started your clothing line idea?
Martirosyan: Now you’ve expanded I see.
Susini: Yes. I’m going to hold these up. We have the shorts right here. As you can see, this is the CHLA (Children’s Hospital Los Angeles) logo.
Martirosyan: Are you collaborating with them?
Susini: It’s the CHLA logo because I was there for rehab and they helped me walk again and also helped me with my left arm. Some of our proceeds go back to Children’s Hospital and we bring some of our adaptive clothing there.
Martirosyan: You seem passionate about it. Will you continue to pursue the clothing line?
Susini: I hope so. I’ve always wanted to be a clothing designer. Now I kind of want to be a brain surgeon after everything I went through. Maybe I could do both.
Martirosyan: Maybe! You’re in school now? Being a brain surgeon requires plenty of study!
Susini: Yeah a lot of school! I just started in-person school at the beginning of the semester. I was at the school with the hospital.
Martirosyan: How does it feel to be back in school after the pandemic and this journey you’ve been on?
Susini: It felt really different. I haven’t been to school since, like, fifth grade, in-person grade school! But it’s really fun. I didn’t think I’d ever say that about school, but I really like it.
Martirosyan: How old are you now?
Martirosyan: Building fun memories. How are you spending your time outside of school?
Susini: Getting back into sports. I’ve recently gone into basketball, and I’ve been doing basketball with my left hand and it’s in good condition. I’ve been getting back to track, trying to ease my way back into sports.
Martirosyan: You quite enjoy being active it seems.
Susini: I have three brothers, so our house was super-competitive. It was always like, “I’m better at basketball. I’m faster on this and that.” It was always a competition.
Martirosyan: I can only imagine. That’s a lot of boys!
Susini: It’s a lot of boys! (laughs)
Martirosyan: Did you expect to have more surgeries?
Susini: I think I was always going to have to have one for my hand, because I had nerve damage. But for my foot, my left foot, I got really good news the other day. My doctor had said, “You’re going to have that surgery for your foot.” And now he’s saying that I might not have to have surgery, that my foot’s getting a lot better.
Martirosyan: That’s wonderful news! So a lot of physical therapy, and training.
Susini: My therapy has gotten me so much better. I’m walking and running again. I play basketball. I just think you should stay happy about it and know that you’re putting in all this hard work and good things will come from putting in the hard work.
Martirosyan: Absolutely. How has your experience been with friends along this journey?
Susini: I have really good friends. They’ve all been super-supportive of me. I love my friends.
Martirosyan: How are you feeling in this moment?
Susini: I’m super-excited for this process to be almost over and my hand be fully working again and being back to basketball and maybe soccer, too.
Martirosyan: I’m excited for you! Do you have a lot of tingling? Has your sensation returned?
Susini: In my hand right now since I got the surgery for the nerve, I’m getting feeling, I felt it right after the surgery, I’m getting most of the feeling back. It’s not that bad.
Martirosyan: Was it mainly your left side that was affected?
Susini: Yeah, it was just my left side.
Martirosyan: And that was from the stroke?
Susini: After my surgery, I remember I was waking up and I had a thing around my head because I just got brain surgery. And a couple weeks later they took it off and I was feeling the back of my head and I look at my mom and I go, “Did they shave my hair?” She didn’t want me to be upset, and she was like, “I don’t think so, just a little part.” And then I got my phone back and I looked at the side of my head, and I remember I was so mad at my doctor. I called him “Dr. Dinosaur.” I was like, “Why would you shave my hair?” He was like, “We had to do that.” I remember I was so mad.
Martirosyan: That took some getting used to, I’m sure.
Susini: It did.
Martirosyan: Do you know what they did surgically as far as—
Susini: It was 4 1/2 by 2 1/2 inches, so almost half my head. The nail just went in and shattered it. I think they tried to piece most of it back together. I remember I had brain surgery August 30th of 2021. They put—I think it’s a PEEK implant or a metal mesh, I don’t remember which one exactly. They put it in my head to have something protecting it, at least. I think when I’m 18, they’ll have to put another plate in my head, for good, though.
Martirosyan: Is it soft to the touch now?
Susini: It’s still pretty delicate. But I have gone back into sports. One of my doctors said that the plate would grow into my head and I’ll be able to do more sports and stuff.
Martirosyan: Wonderful. Are you going on auditions now?
Susini: Some of them, but not too much. I’ve been mostly focusing on sports and getting better.
Martirosyan: It seems like you’ve come a long way in a very short amount of time.
Are you working with someone in designing and producing your clothing?
Susini: Me and my best friend, we come up with the designs, all the colors how we want it, and then we have someone actually design it for us.
Martirosyan: How did you come up with the name?
Susini: It’s like Lalia and Cate matched together, Lalia and then Cate, LATE. We have the “Love” tank top here because they were like, “You’re probably going to walk again, you’re probably not going to do this again.” I was like, “Nope, nope, nope. I will do that again.” We pick out the designs. That one right there, that’s one of my favorites. I love that one.
Martirosyan: That’s pretty.
Susini: Thank you. It’s all different basketball players’ hands, about love.
Martirosyan: A lot of work, to start a business! Are you making them in different sizes?
Susini: It ranges from extra-small to extra-large. It’s kind of for teens, but my brother, who’s six foot tall and plays football, all of his friends love the sweat pants. Everyone at his school wears the sweat pants. We have a bunch of different colors and sizes.
Martirosyan: Supportive of him. Are you hoping to bring it into retail, how are you selling it?
Susini: It’s online right now, we’ve done pop-ups like in the Village, but we’re mostly just doing it online.
[Dr. Chappell connects]
Martirosyan: Dr. Chappell, Lalia said she wants to be a brain surgeon. Do you have any advice, being that you took that route?
Dr. Tom Chappell: Study hard!
Generally it’s relatively straightforward, but pretty competitive to do well in school, when you get a science background there are certain prerequisites to get into medical school. You don’t have to necessarily major in science, interestingly enough, but you do have to meet certain prerequisites to get in. That’s pretty tough, just because it’s competitive. And once you’ve completed that, you have to do pretty well there, because it’s competitive to get into a neurosurgery residency. I don’t remember now, but there are only, I think, 110 training spots in the whole country. You, of course, could get citizenship in another country, but 110 training spots. Usually several thousand people apply for them. It’s fairly competitive.
Susini: Wow, that’s crazy!
Martirosyan: After Lalia’s accident, she had to get a PEEK implant.
Chappell: So it was made of PEEK. That’s relatively new. Back in the old days, we really did—this was before my time, even, put just a solid metal plate in. We haven’t done that in many, many years. There are different products we can use.
Susini: What material is PEEK?
Chappell: It’s “polyether ether ketone”, that’s what PEEK stands for. If I handed it to you, you’d say, “Oh, it’s like plastic”.
Martirosyan: And that’s just a one-time surgery, or do you have to keep going back to maintain it?
Chappell: It’s a permanent implant. It’s kind of interesting the technology that’s used now. When they did it for her, they took a scan of her head and used a computer to carve the implant out of the material PEEK based on the opposite side of her skull, the normal side, and then it also cuts the piece to fit the actual defect. I read about your accident. I’ve seen all kinds of accidents, and I have to say, that was a pretty unique one. I’m really sorry.
Susini: Thank you.
Martirosyan: She also experienced a stroke, on her left side—
Susini: The left side, yeah.
Chappell: It looks like what happened was that section of the brain was damaged.
If the object penetrates the skull and damages the part of the brain that controls the opposite side of the body, that’s the effect you’ll get. It can look a lot like a stroke.
Martirosyan: Are you left-handed or right-handed?
Susini: I am right-handed.
Chappell: Pretty lucky. If anything is good here, that’s better than it might have been. It could have affected your speech, too.
Martirosyan: With rehab she’s at a point now where she’s not only walking well, but she’s running, and started to play basketball again. Not on the competitive level, she’s not a pro, yet.
Chappell: Maybe Stanford and girls’ basketball, they’re doing pretty well.
Susini: Maybe! (laughs)
Susini: I just had a nerve transfer in my hand, and my doctor thought he would have to do one in my foot, too, but a week ago, he said that my foot was getting a lot better and a lot stronger and he doesn’t think he’ll have to do it any more.
Chappell: That’s good to hear. Those are all maneuvers to try to improve the function in the extremities, which we call peripherally, out in the extremity itself. Those are orthopedic doctors who do that, usually.
Martirosyan: How does that work, and recover?
Chappell: Of course, I can’t speak to the surgeon, nor am I an orthopedic expert, but more than likely what they’re saying about the leg is that it’s good enough that they can’t improve upon it. That’s probably more what they’re saying, that it’s recovered significantly so that anything that they might do would not greatly improve upon what she’s already been able to recover on her own.
Martirosyan: Is it also good that she’s young and still in a growing phase?
Chappell: You’re much better off to be younger and have something like that happen. Had it happened to me, I’d be in big trouble, for sure.
Martirosyan: It doesn’t seem like your speech was affected, or noticeable.
Susini: Thank you. Right after my accident, my mouth dropped so much when I talked. I still have a little bit of a mouth-drop, but when I talked, it was really noticeable.
Martirosyan: How did your family get into acting?
Susini: We lived in Dallas before we moved to LA. I think one of my mom’s friends was a casting agent, and my older brother started acting first, and then I wanted to get into it, and then all my other brothers started wanting to get into it, too.
Martirosyan: Susini, is that French?
Susini: Yeah, it’s French. My dad’s French. It’s French and Corsican. That’s where he grew up.
Martirosyan: Do you speak French in the house?
Susini: We try to speak French. My older brother and my dad and my mom, my dad’s fluent still, and my brother can barely speak French any more, but they’re all fluent. We try to speak French, because we go there every summer.
Martirosyan: What part of France?
Martirosyan: Lovely. Do you enjoy being there?
Susini: Yeah. It sort of reminds me of LA, I really like it. That’s where all our family is.
Martirosyan: What’s your favorite part about being in Paris?
Susini: My grandparents live in a small, little part of Paris, and I love being able to walk everywhere. It’s so pretty. I love shopping with my grandparents. I love it there.
Martirosyan: Très bien! I see a picture behind you is that you holding a surf board?
Susini: Oh, yeah. This picture there? I really want to get into long boarding. This was two weeks before my accident. That’s [holding the picture] one of my best friends.
Martirosyan: I see trophies. Did you win a contest?
Susini: I did junior lifeguard, and we had a surf competition with all the beaches, and I got eighth place for girls 7 to 15 years old. I was 9.
Martirosyan: Impressive. I surfed once, and it was in Israel, did you know people surf in Israel?
Susini: I didn’t. (laughs)
Martirosyan: Most people don’t know that. Tel Aviv is on the shores of the Mediterranean sea. Where do you surf?
Susini: Near Malibu, and Huntington Beach.
Martirosyan: Those are two very different places.
Susini: I like Huntington Beach, but it’s always super-crowded. There’s a place in Malibu called Sunset and I like it there because the waves are perfect, the perfect size, and they don’t go too fast and they don’t break too quickly.
Martirosyan: Have you surfed on the north side of the pier at Malibu?
Susini: I have, like, one time. It’s always super-super-crowded.
Martirosyan: Do you know an actor named John C McGinley? He did the TV show “Scrubs.” That’s before your time.
Chappell: Everything was before her time.
Martirosyan: He’s an actor who lives in Malibu. There is private access into the area called Dunes, so no crowds.
Susini: That’s really cool.
Martirosyan: Will you surf when you get your arm—
Susini: Once I get all of this healed, I really want to get back to surfing.
Martirosyan: Will you try a long board then? Dr. Chappell does paddle-boarding.
Susini: Yeah, I want to try long boarding, because on a short board you go so fast, and I want to go long. I think I want to start again on a long board.
Chappell: I was thinking you might try stand-up. That’ll be a long board and you’ll already be standing up. All you’ve got to do is paddle and catch the waves standing up. You don’t have to worry about your leg coming up when you need for it to, if it’s not doing that right away. Might be fun to try.
Susini: I haven’t thought about that. It’s been so long.
Martirosyan: Have you seen people surfing with the stand-ups?
Susini: I have. It’s really cool.
Martirosyan: The boards are cutting the waves. it’s not just standing there and going straight. They’re actually maneuvering. The boards are getting more and more versatile, I guess, I don’t know how to describe it. Dr. Chappell could.
Susini: Yeah. I was going to do it this past summer, but then I got brain surgery.
Martirosyan: We might be writing an article about accessible surfing in Huntington Beach in the near future. Once it’s all sorted, we’ll let you and see if you want to come out.
Susini: You know, that sounds really cool.
Martirosyan: We wish you all the best in your healing. Keep doing what you love to do.
Susini: Thank you.