After an acute deep-vein thrombosis left Max Summit comatosed for three weeks, a doctor told her that an amalgam of rare blood disorders would prevent her from leading a normal life. Max proved the doctor wrong – the first thing she did after recovering was to go sky diving.
“Life shouldn’t be measured by how many steps you take,” she asserts. ”It should be measured by the memories you create. When I got sick, what scared me the most was not the thought of dying, but the idea of not being given the extended chance to live.”
Living every day to the fullest has been her motto since. Now, another 15 years later, Max has come from being an Olympic volleyball hopeful to leading creative marketing campaigns for Reebok by way of humanitarian work in Africa, and living in a Buddhist monastery.
The 30-year-old’s laughter is bubbly and contagious as she relives the exhilarating highs of her journey while taking time to reflect on the sobering lows with an equal intensity of emotion. This is her story.
Full steam ahead
Growing up in Brazil, a country where physical activity is deeply embedded in the culture, Max treated nature as her playground. Her fondest childhood memories revolve around her grandparents who would take her on sailing excursions along the coast of Brazil.
“We would swim at night and eat fresh fish straight from the sea. Then, we’d fall asleep to the rhythm of the ocean, under the stars,” she reminisces.
Sport to her was a natural extension of that freedom of growing up and spending time outdoors. Later on in school, she discovered her talent for volleyball by chance. As the US offered a better infrastructure for aspiring athletes, Max’s mother took the duo back to their roots in Boston, Massachusetts.
“All these things were moving right towards my dream. I was so young, just shy of 16, but making such great strides,” she says, adding that an injury put her efforts on a brief pause. Little did she know that the path that was carved out for her was about to hit a major roadblock.
The darkest hour
When recovering from a surgery to fix torn ligaments, Max started experiencing mysterious pains in her leg. One night at home, Max awoke in agony and yelled out for her mother who ran upstairs to discover her daughter’s leg all green and blue, three times its normal size.
“I felt a rush move from my toes to my chest, from my chest to my head,” Max tells, her speech accelerating. ”My mom, not knowing what to do, shook me, and I felt this pop, like a cork forcing its way out from a champagne bottle. The last thing I remember is my dear mother’s face. Then, everything started to fade away.”
Three weeks passed in the pediatric intensive care unit. As Max recalls these crucial moments, her voice starts quivering.
“I was completely intubated and left paralyzed by all the machinery and breathing aids. Movement of any kind meant death at this stage of the game. My mother was told to prepare for the worst.”
Somehow, she’s able to spot a silver lining:
Once fully conscious, a doctor gave Max a monologue about what had happened. “He must have talked for a solid 15 minutes, hurling the entire medical dictionary at me. Finally, when he asked if I had any questions, I said, ‘Yes. Am I going to die?’”
Not today, replied the doctor, and walked away.
Accepting the new normal
The blood clot had run all the way from Max’s ankle to her aorta. Multiple pieces had dislodged and moved to her lungs and brain. Coupled with a rare genetic mutation in her blood, the critical pop was practically unavoidable.
Being brutally aware of her new reality, consisting of occasional relapses and daily medications with painful side effects, is what essentially helped Max define her life thereafter. At a time when her friends were thinking about what dresses to wear and who their next boyfriends would be, Max was thinking about the meaning of life, and whether or not hers had any.
With abandoned dreams in professional volleyball, Max’s instinct was to tackle life with a newfound sense of urgency. After a stint in theater school, she enrolled in a university where she took everything from philosophy to Greek archeology with the goal of enriching her mind, not planning.
The power of stories
In the spirit of taking life by storm, a few weeks after completing her thesis, Max was on a one-way flight to Nairobi, Kenya. On her quest to uncover humanitarian stories with a documentary crew from HBO and Doctors Without Borders, she not only discovered the power of stories, but found a sense of calm she so desperately had been chasing.
“I was living out of a van, among the local tribes. It hit me that, for the first time in my life, I had discovered serenity among chaos. And it was in a work environment. A creative one!” she rejoices.
This realization defined her future career. After traveling the globe and living solemnly in a Buddhist monastery, Max landed a job at Reebok. Today, at 30 years old and in a creative marketing role, sport and storytelling remain at the heart of everything she does.
Max looks back on her childhood, being young and dreaming of great things, and how it all ties in with a sense of belonging.
As Max recaps her extraordinary life’s story, envisioning it in an alternate universe without the illness proves nearly impossible. After pondering the question for a brief moment, she takes a deep breath, and exhales her response: “I probably wouldn’t smile as much.”
The giggle that follows reveals her genuine appreciation for life.