Ashleigh Grace was in the back of an ambulance, her legs burned black.
The emergency medical technician, trying to direct Ashleigh’s mind elsewhere, asked her about the sports she played. She started talking about softball, about the Georgia Power Demarini team coached by her father, Ryan, and the team at North Forsyth, with its deep lineup of young hitters.
That made Ashleigh ask what to her was the most pertinent question at the time: Am I going to be able to play again? Then she asked it again, and again.
When Ryan Grace was 15 years old, one of his eyes was punctured by a nail. He can still see out of it today, but not very well, and his peripheral vision in that eye was gone.
That accident-prone nature skipped the Grace family’s first daughter, Kyleigh, but not Ashleigh, a 15-year-old sophomore at North. When she was four, she broke her arm, and since then, she’s broken fingers, toes, and has other injuries to her shoulders, knees and hamstrings.
But she’d never had surgery, and those bumps and bruises didn’t stop Ashleigh’s ascendant softball career. By the time she was in sixth grade, she was playing for North’s eight-grade feeder team. She was fast, could handle the bat as a left-handed slapper, and caught most every game. Aggressiveness was her strength.
“Nothing really fazed her, even if she did get banged up or anything” said North senior MacKenzie Marvin, who has played with Ashleigh since she was in eighth grade. “This is the first thing I think that’s actually impacted her.”
As a freshman at North last fall, Ashleigh was one of the top bats on a team that slugged its way to a playoff berth, hitting .461 and stealing 16 bases for the Raiders. Over the summer, her travel team won the Premier Girls Fastpitch Southeast Championship in Nashville.
And eight days after that, Ashleigh was driving a golf cart around her neighborhood with four friends aboard. As they were going down a hill, the steering wheel started to shake, and Ashleigh lost control of the cart.
The cart flipped over on its side and dragged Ashleigh down the hill, giving her a bad case of road rash. But that was far from the worst of her injuries: The golf cart’s battery cracked open and spilled corrosive acid all over Ashleigh’s legs and feet, burning down to the bone in some spots.
Another golf cart was following Ashleigh’s, and the boys riding in that one stopped and jumped off when they saw the first one crash. They lifted the cart off Ashleigh and carried her over to the grass. Ashleigh doesn’t remember what her legs felt like at the moment, but she remembers what she said.
“I looked down and just started screaming, that I felt like I was on fire, and that I was burning,” she said.
Ashleigh’s mother, Lockie, didn’t need to see the injury to know how bad it was. She was the first person Ashleigh called, and she knew that her daughter wasn’t prone to exaggeration.
“She said, ‘It’s bad, mom. It’s bad,’” Lockie said. “And that’s when I freaked out.”
The ambulance first took Ashleigh to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, but the burns from the acid were so severe that she was transferred to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. The doctors there took a picture of the injuries, amazed at how deep they were, especially by Ashleigh’s left knee.
“(It) looked like someone took an ice cream scoop and scooped out of her knee,” Lockie said.
The first surgery was July 30, the day after the accident, to remove all the debris from the wounds. Four days later, Ashleigh had another surgery: It was originally meant to mainly serve the same purposes as the first one, but the doctors wound up implanting multiple skin grafts and Integra, a type of artificial skin.
The second surgery was more expansive than anticipated, and it was also much shorter, taking less than three hours, as opposed to the six to seven hours projected. In fact, one of the scariest moments of the ordeal for Lockie was when the doctors came to talk to her earlier than expected.
“I was worried that something really bad had happened,” she said.
That was a sign of the progress to come for Ashleigh. Almost everything in her recovery has proceeded ahead of schedule: She’s avoided severe infection, the skin grafts took, and the tissue had largely regenerated in the deepest wounds.
Signs of Ashleigh’s accident are still very visible. She has large scars on both legs, and they’re especially severe on her left leg, where her skin bears a cross-hatch pattern of where the skin grafts were perforated so that they would stretch over the wounds. The healing is taking longest on her left foot, which still has to be wrapped in gauze due to a tendon on the top of it being exposed.
On a recent doctor’s visit, though, Ashleigh was fitted for compression garments, to keep the scars from rising too much. Doctors had told the family that Ashleigh would be in the hospital until the middle of September, but she went home on Aug. 10. She’s progressed from using a walker to walking around unassisted. She’s been doing her schoolwork online and with the help of teachers coming to her house, but she hopes to be attending some classes in person by this week.
“Her healing is just unbelievable,” Lockie said. “We can only give credit to God and to everybody praying for us for her healing. I completely attribute it to that, because there’s no other explanation for how well she’s done.”
Ashleigh’s injury wasn’t the first time the Grace family had to deal with a severe injury or illness: It wasn’t even the first time in the past year. In June 2017, Lockie was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.
She went to the doctor after Kyleigh’s high school graduation party, got an MRI, and was then told to see an oncologist. Lockie had surgery July 5 and had 18 weeks of chemo, which she finished on Dec. 18 of last year. She’s been doing well lately, though.
“I say I’m winning,” Lockie said. “I don’t say I’m a survivor yet.”
That battle was a defining factor in Ashleigh’s freshman season. With her sister in college and her dad at work and traveling, she was often left alone at home with her mother.
“When you think of your mom, you think of someone this could never happen to, and you think about how she’s the strongest person in your life,” Ashleigh said. “…She’s such an outgoing, bright person all the time, and seeing her having those days where she could hardly lift her head above the pillow when she was in pain, but tried to hide it, that was so hard.”
Ashleigh said that was harder to go through than her injury and recovery. She had her bad days last fall, during which she sought the comfort of friends like North assistant coach Pilar Harden. And when she was on the softball field, she used it as an escape.
“She played every game for her mom last year,” Harden said. “And that was incredible to watch.”
Lockie, in turn, would have willingly taken Ashleigh’s injuries for herself. Ashleigh doesn’t remember some of the worst moments of pain, but Lockie was there for almost all of it.
She remembers one night that Ashleigh couldn’t sleep because she kept seeing the accident again when she closed her eyes. She remembers meeting her Ashleigh in the emergency room and seeing her cry in relief when she found out the other kids on the golf cart weren’t severely injured.
Lockie did her best to keep track of Ashleigh’s medication cycle and to keep her distracted with songs or YouTube videos when she needed it, but there were some times when she could only watch.
“I’m glad she doesn’t remember some of the intense pain,” Lockie said. “Because some of the first nights were horrible.”
Speed was a key part of Ashleigh’s game in softball, and the accident impacted her to a degree that she could barely sit up. On nights when her father would stay with her, the two would stay up and talk about softball. When she thought about going home, she thought about going to softball games.
“At night, I just wanted to move,” Ashleigh said. “I wanted to get up and be able to run, and be able to hit, be able to throw, be able to do anything. And I couldn’t.”
That desire and impatience also helped spur Ashleigh’s recovery. She was told that she had to shower on her own to be able to go home, and by the next day, she was doing that.
It’s softball that’s pushing Ashleigh through tough. She gets upset because she misses playing, but it’s that same frustration with being confined to the dugout that keeps her going.
“That’s pretty much what my life revolves around,” Ashleigh said. “What’s pushing me to get better, what’s pushing me to walk more, what’s pushing me to walk faster and build up everything — that’s softball.”
Since the accident, Ashleigh hasn’t swung a bat or played catch with anyone. The most softball activity she’s done is throw a ball back to the catcher or umpire from the dugout.
She’s still very much a part of the local softball community, though. Her coaches and teammates started visiting within days of Ashleigh being checked into Grady. West Forsyth was one of the first opposing teams to reach out, gathering an assortment of gift cards to give to the families when Ashleigh was in the hospital.
Lambert has worn helmet decals — a purple number five, Ashleigh’s jersey number — as a show of support. Forsyth Central has worn purple hair bows and brought Ashleigh and Lockie out onto its home field after the teams’ game on Aug. 30. Even teams from outside of the county, like North Gwinnett, Cambridge and Creekview, have shown support.
“It’s just girls and families that she’d touched, because she is a good, good kid, and they’re a great family,” Harden said.
And even with Ashleigh’s absence in the batting order, the Raiders have topped their performance from last season. They bashed their way through a competitive, unpredictable Region 5-7A schedule, winning the regular season title outright with a 7-3 record and scoring 168 runs, 43 more than the next team.
“This team’s done a really good job of overcoming things all year long,” North head coach Jim Cahill said. “Injuries and things like that, even something simple like bad calls, things that don’t go your way or balls that don’t bounce your way, they’ve done a good job all year of overcoming that and not letting it affect them. I think maybe Ashleigh Grace has something to do with that.”
The first game Ashleigh attended after getting out of the hospital was when the Raiders played Lambert on Aug. 21. She was happy to be back around the game, but not as much so with the reality that, for the time being, she could only watch.
“I had to come to reality, come to terms with letting somebody else have my position,” Ashleigh said. “I’m a competitive person, so I’ve never really experienced just going, ‘Oh yeah, here you go! Have it!’”
These days, her days not at the doctor’s consist mainly of schoolwork. Ashleigh has scarcely eased off her rigorous course load, with classes like honors chemistry and pre-calculus. She hasn’t picked up a hobby to fill the time she would spend playing softball. She tries to make as many games as she can, and sometimes she watches videos of herself playing.
Ashleigh has ambitious goals for coming months. She wants to do winter workouts with her travel team in January, and she hopes to try out for the tennis team in the spring. She’s on North’s homecoming court, and at the homecoming football game on Friday, she wants to walk out onto the field unassisted.
The pace of Ashleigh’s future recovery largely depends on how her left foot comes along. Once that’s all healed, she can start physical therapy.
Doctors couldn’t give the Graces an expected timeline for Ashleigh’s injury, because its severity was so rare. Lockie doesn’t want any fuel for negative thoughts, so she hasn’t done much extra research herself. But Ashleigh hasn’t heard any hard limits set on her recovery, because a recovery as fast as hers is so rare.
Ashleigh’s last softball at-bat was with her travel team, as the PGF tournament in July. She batted the first time through the order, but she hurt her hip and exited the game.
One of the team moms, a doctor, has been working on Ashleigh’s hip during the game, and in the last inning, she asked for a bat and told her dad to put her in the game. Her team was in the midst of a game-winning six-run comeback, and they’d taken the decisive lead the previous batter. That didn’t cause Ashleigh to hold back, though.
She bunted, and she beat it out for a single.