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Sophie Otto defies the odds

Last Modified: April 03, 2024

Diseases & Disorders, Sports & Exercise


When Tyler Atkins, MD, neurosurgeon, Parkview Health, received a direct call from the trauma surgeon on call, he knew there was a severe case in the Emergency Department

That case was Sophie Otto, a student-athlete at Snider High School. “Everything changed in a split second,” she said. “I had a gut feeling something was wrong.” Sophie suffered a frightening injury just five minutes before her team swim practice was scheduled to end. “Instead of diving out straight, I dove out and down. I don’t remember much. I hit my head and blacked out.”

When she came to, the panic really set in. “I tried moving my body, but I couldn’t move at all from the neck down. I drowned for a little bit. I couldn’t breathe. Everyone talks about how life flashes before your eyes, and it’s true. I saw everything I wanted to have in life and everything I wouldn’t get if I didn’t get out of the pool. I was completely helpless.” Thankfully, one of Sophie’s teammates rescued her from the water and secured her out of the pool. Her father, John, a local firefighter, arrived first.  

“It was an out-of-body experience,” he recalled. “When your daughter is asking you if she’s going to walk again. I stood outside of myself.”

Quick intervention

Katie Otto, Sophie’s mother, made it to the hospital before her daughter. “[John] called me after the ambulance had loaded her up and he said, ‘You need to prepare yourself. It’s serious.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Am I going to walk again?’ and I just told her I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. I said, ‘No matter what the outcome, we’re going to be with you every step of the way and we love you. Your job is just to get better.’”

Dr. Atkins knew Sophie needed swift surgical intervention. “We’re addressing the damage that’s already happened but also, with bone still pressing on the spinal cord, we have ongoing damage, so the sooner we get the spinal cord free from that pressure the better recovery potential.”

The surgeon began the lengthy procedure at 11 p.m. He removed the damaged bone and put in metal replacement devices to hold the structure of her neck where that bone was taken out. 

Around 3 a.m., Dr. Atkins met with Sophie’s parents, to share that, for someone with the injury she had, he couldn’t believe how mild the effect was. It was a virtual miracle.

A beautiful connection

It was during one of their early conversations in the ER, that John made an unlikely connection to his daughter’s surgeon. In May 2007, Dr. Atkins, then a high school student, stopped by the local fire station to see his date’s dad, who was on duty. John worked at the same station and offered to take a photo of the couple in front of a fire truck with his new digital camera. After some digging, John was able to find the photo and shared it on social media.


Now, both men marvel at the way their paths crossed all those years ago. “He had been doing his internships all over the world,” John said. “And he ends up back in Fort Wayne, married to his high school sweetheart and saving my daughter’s life, just three miles from where I took that photo.”

Sophie blows everyone away

Dr. Atkins shared with the Otto family that the amount of people who have restored normal function and independence following an injury like Sophie’s is fairly low. But Sophie was different. 

“At the time, it was an important thing to have hope that I would eventually be able to walk again,” Sophie said. “Even though it was hard, and I was in a lot of pain, I was very determined.”

When she showed signs of promise early on in the rehabilitation process, both Sophie and her parents knew she was going to overcome the effects of the accident. “She could at least feel the sensation when Dr. Atkins would take a needle and graze the bottom of her feet,” John recalled. “That’s when she stopped asking if she would walk again. She’d made up her mind that she was going to be fine.”

Sophie was highly focused on getting back in the game and felt supported by Dr. Atkins every step of the way. “Being an athlete before I broke my neck, I’m going to keep going and pushing myself.”

Dr. Atkins cleared her for different activities as her recovery progressed and she grew stronger. “I think her results have as much or more to do with her than what anyone did on the medical side. No one was going to stop her,” Dr. Atkins said.  

A sweet ending to senior year

Sophie is wrapping up high school and enjoying [almost] all of the traditions and milestones that come with this chapter in her life. “I’m looking forward to the end of my senior year. I have lots of finals, which I’m not looking forward to, but I’m feeling good. It’s the small things, like being able to dance at prom. I never thought I could dance on my own two feet. I’m spending time with friends without worrying I’m missing out on anything. I’m just living my day-to-day life.”

Sophie will attend Butler University in the fall and plans to pursue a career in the medical field.

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