An excited toddler in a pink tutu stands at her open front door in mid-February 2021, shouting with glee: “Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Mommy!” The tiny dancer is Lia Berg, the daughter of Lauren and Justin Berg of Amberley Village—and the joy she felt came from seeing her mother for the first time since October 4, 2020.
On that fateful October day, with just one minor misstep in an unfamiliar environment, Lauren Shmalo Berg, 37, tumbled down an unlit flight of cellar stairs and suffered a C3-C4 Spinal Cord Injury that, presently, has left her paralyzed from the neck down. Justin, her husband, explains, “After hearing her scream, I ran to see if she was okay. She was breathing when I asked her if she could move anything. Lauren answered ‘No’ and then she stopped breathing.” After being given CPR, first by Justin and then by the paramedics, she was taken to a local hospital. She required immediate surgery and was airlifted to Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton where she endured an 8-hour surgery to repair her spine. After endless days in an ICU, Lauren was transferred to the Drake Center Campus in Hartwell where she remained until her insurance approved her placement at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Rated among the Top 10 rehabilitation facilities, Shepherd is a world renowned provider of specialized and aggressive rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries using cutting edge technologies for the best possible outcomes.
Upon arrival at Shepherd Center, the specialists determined that Lauren’s spinal corrections were unstable, and she was immediately taken into surgery, again. After a stint in their ICU, she was finally ready to begin her road to recovery. Rehab for a spinal cord injury “is a marathon, not a sprint” explains Lauren’s mother, Marlene. Lauren’s days during her 15 weeks at Shepherd were filled to the brim with physical, occupational, and psychological therapies, along with manual and electrical stimulation sessions. Lauren also underwent three more surgeries before being released to return home.
Before the accident, Lauren, daughter of lifelong Cincinnatians Marlene and Albert Shmalo, was a vibrant and dynamic mother of two, Lia, now 3, and Isaac, now 9 months old. Growing up in Cincinnati, Lauren was a figure skater, singer, and dancer. Her interest in the arts began while her Mother, Marlene, served as the director of the JCC performing arts department from 1987 through 1999 and taught at Walnut Hills High School. Soon, she was performing in productions in college in Virginia, and throughout the Cincinnati tristate area. As an adult, Lauren became a Pre-K teacher at Rockwern Academy, taught figure skating at Northland Ice Center, was a certified Pilates instructor and produced Zumbini mother and infant singalong and exercise videos. Together, Marlene and Lauren also organized and produced the Cincinnati city-wide Campus Superstars talent program, which benefits Hillel.
In 2016, Lauren met Justin, a sportswriter at the American Israelite from 2017 through 2019. Together they could be spotted cheering in the stands at sporting events across the city. Justin and Lauren married in 2017 and their first child, Lia, was born in 2018, and Isaac was born in 2020. Today, Justin, the son of Janet Berg of Lebanon and Johnny Berg of Mainville, is the owner of a local landscaping company.
Lauren smiles when she refers to Justin as her “rock”: “He remains upbeat, similar to a sports fan cheering from the bleachers. Every small accomplishment I make, he applauds, while continuing to reassure me that those small accomplishments, building upon each other, bring us closer to our goal—walking.”
Lauren’s C3-C4 Spinal Cord Injury is termed “incomplete”—and that is the silver lining she and Justin are counting on. Technically speaking, an incomplete SCI means that the ability of the spinal cord to convey messages to and from the brain is not completely lost at the point of injury. Lauren has already shown movement in all four extremities and sensations all over her body. Lauren has the advantage of a keen awareness and knowledge of body movement due to her years of skating, dancing, and Pilates training. Lauren’s brother Rob, an attorney in New York, spent most of the first five months after the accident in Cincinnati helping his parents and taking care of Lauren’s two children. Together, Rob, along with older brother, Jamie, a pediatrician in Indianapolis, explain, “We have learned this is the type of recovery where, though she is getting a little stronger every day, there are many days, and even weeks, without observable function or improvement. Still, Lauren maintains her grace, humor and will to do all she can to regain her function. With continued therapy, perseverance and a tremendous amount of fortitude there is no telling how far she’ll go.”
Lauren’s best friends, Erica Cohen Biscotti and Cyvia Sharf Star, began a fundraising campaign to aid the Bergs. Asked why they took on this responsibility, they both agreed, “Lauren has been the ultimate cheerleader to her friends and her students Now it’s our turn to return the favor.”
Since her return to Cincinnati three months ago, Lauren has continued her long journey to recovery, which requires full-time assistive care, multiple medical specialists and intense physical and occupational therapy. Her young children also require full-time child care. As her brother Rob said, “What has amazed all of us about my sister is her unwavering determination to beat her injury in the face of extraordinary challenges. Day after day she and Justin maintain their laser focus, and are upbeat and optimistic that one day she will walk again. And knowing my sister, she will!”
On the day Lauren returned home, she was greeted by her gathered family and a very special surprise: baby Isaac crawling for the very first time. “It was besheret,” said Lauren, “a sign that there are many more milestones yet to come for me, and for my family. And I can’t wait to be a part of them all.”