A Survivor

GO KNIGHTS Cassie Hochwalt
Cassie Hochwalt

May 20, 2013

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By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF women's tennis player Cassie Hochwalt entered this world a fighter, slightly bigger than the size of a single dollar bill.

"She had a less than 10 percent chance of surviving and had she survived, she had a less than 1 percent chance of being a normal kid," her mother Debbie said. "Strength, fight and determination come in all shapes and sizes. To think that Cassie's fight came from within her micro-tiny 29-ounce body is not only miraculous, but mind-blowing."

In spring 1991, Debbie Hochwalt, who was already a mother to a healthy toddler Tyler, discovered she was pregnant with twins. Sadly, 6-to-8 weeks into the pregnancy, she miscarried one of the babies. Cassie's heartbeat was still viable, so the doctors treated her mother as best they could without disturbing the womb.

However, unknown to everyone at the time, infection set in the placenta and set into motion the trigger to Cassie's premature arrival.

Cassie was born on Sept. 18, 1991, 101 days or roughly 14 weeks before her due date. She weighed 1 pound, 13 ounces, and was completely septic from the undetected infection.

Cassie's charts listed one serious ailment after another. She had bacterial pneumonia in both lungs. An undeveloped heart. Liver disease. Spinal meningitis. Ten days after birth, a blood vessel burst and her brain hemorrhaged.

"We were called in the middle of the night and I remember meeting with the doctors the next day," Debbie said. "We were prepared for the worst scenario, and she just rebounded and took off from that day. It was amazing, quite honestly."

When Cassie was cleared to go home 10 weeks later, her weight had increased to 4 pounds, 5 ounces. She no longer needed medicine or oxygen, but required vitamins and needed to wear a special pink belt around her chest that monitored her breathing.

Although they were happy she was relatively healthy, Cassie's family still wasn't sure what to expect. The goal was to keep her weight up, her growth progressing and her body temperature normal.

Cerebral Palsy, vision impairment, motor deficiencies and a life of being behind the curve were all probable complications that Cassie would likely contract as a result of her truncated gestation. Then, in February, a 5-month-old Cassie performed a very simple but miraculous task.

While lying on her stomach on a leather ottoman in her family's living room, Cassie popped her head up and looked around the room.

"I can still remember everything about it. She had control and tone. She did a very normal baby thing," Debbie said. "I took her to the doctor and we were just beyond elated. From that time on, she progressed."

It took months of driving their daughter around while sleeping in the middle of the night for her parents to tire her enough continuously to feed her without a fight, but by her first birthday, Cassie was a "chubby" healthy baby at 15 pounds.

The state, psychologists, child development specialists, neurologists all followed Cassie's case continuously until she was ready for kindergarten.

By the time she was 10, after stints with softball and dance, Cassie was ready to take on the family sport of tennis. Her father played at Mississippi State and her older brother went on to play collegiately at Florida.

"Once I got to high school, playing collegiate tennis was always the goal," Cassie said. "I tried to go out there with a purpose. I would talk to my dad about getting good enough to play in college. It's just a great opportunity, and it's fun. You want to be on a team, and it helps you later in life."

She came out of high school ranked as the No. 5 recruit out of Arizona and originally signed on at Austin Peay in Tennessee. But she transferred to UCF last year and has found the perfect fit with her close-knit team.

A health sciences, pre-clinical major, Cassie hopes to be a physical therapist one day.

Through the years, the Hochwalt family kept in contact with the doctor who delivered Cassie, Dr. Michael McQueen. Every year at Christmas, McQueen received a picture and update on Cassie, and when it came time, a high school graduation announcement and senior photo.

McQueen was moved "more than he could ever express" by those letters and photos that arrived in his mailbox every year and decided to write a letter of his own to Cassie.

Inside a high school graduation card, he inserted a picture of a newborn lying next to a dollar bill - nearly parallel in the 2.5-inch-by-6-inch dimensions. Cassie still has the card pinned in her room, and whenever she needs a boost in morale, she reads the motivational, handwritten message that runs the length of the left fold and closes with the following:

"On those days (and there will be some despite your considerable talents) that you find yourself thinking, `I just can't do this," I want you to remember this picture and remind yourself:

`Of course I can. I already have.'"

This story appears in the May issue of Knights Insider magazine. The publication, which is published six times per year, provides an inside look at UCF student-athletes, coaches and alums. To order the magazine, click here.