The day after undergoing spinal fusion surgery at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Ellie Glenn ran into someone she didn’t expect.

A giveaway was set up for some of the pediatric patients at the hospital. Glenn, one day into postoperative care, was eager to get out of her hospital room. Her mother wheeled her to the Ryan Seacrest studio in a wheelchair, where the college senior found herself amongst a collection of miniature frisbees, colorful Play-Doh and stuffed animals.

“It’s funny, being a 21-year-old at a pediatric hospital, you can kind of feel out of place,” Glenn said. “But they really do make you feel so special at Children's and just little things like that made my day.”

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan was also at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta that day visiting with patients. When Glenn was asked if she wanted to meet Atlanta’s big, bald wall, the longtime soccer player and Atlanta United fan was beside herself. She happily said yes and was introduced.

The two spent time talking. Glenn asked about the goalkeeper’s experience playing professional soccer and about the culture at Atlanta United culture. For Glenn, it was a huge moment to meet a player that she grew up watching. One of her lasting memories, she said, was attending an Atlanta United match and hearing the infamous Guzan chant when he took a goal kick.

“He’s a big leader on the team in how he’s approached being a leader on the team of players from such different backgrounds,” she said. “I've always been interested in how Atlanta United has Spanish-speaking players and players of different playing styles and personal backgrounds and how they all come together under one team culture. So, to ask him about his leadership style and how you mesh that diverse pool of players, he shared a little bit on that and that was super insightful to me.”

It turns out that Glenn and Guzan have several things in common. Both are soccer players who competed at the collegiate level. Guzan for the University of South Carolina, Glenn at Santa Clara University. In fact, one of the things that stood out to Glenn about their conversation was the fact that Guzan said once his professional playing career was over, whenever that may be, he wanted to go back to school and finish his degree.

“I think he said it was something he promised his mom that he would do,” she said. “I thought that was super neat to see that personal side of his, and I'm really interested to see if he ends up doing that and what he ends up studying. That'll be really fun.”

And like Guzan after he ruptured his Achilles last season, Glenn has gone through major surgery. In December 2022, she had surgery on her back to correct advanced scoliosis. According to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, scoliosis is a sideways curve of the spine. The condition happens to about three percent of children. It can occur at any age but is most often noticeable between the ages of nine and 16 when children are growing rapidly, which is when Glenn was diagnosed. June is National Scoliosis Awareness Month.

Glenn’s scoliosis was managed carefully with the use of a brace. According to Dr. Robert Bruce Jr., who oversaw her care since she was a child, Glenn was diligent in wearing her brace. But by her mid-teenage years the doctor saw that her curvature was at risk to continue progressing into adulthood. And Glenn grew concerned with the way the curve appeared.

Surgery was an option to correct this. However, just as Glenn reached her teenage years, her soccer career was coming on strong. She was a star midfielder at St. Pius X Catholic School in Atlanta and played club soccer at Tophat. In 10th grade, she made a verbal commitment to Santa Clara, one of the top-flight college soccer programs in the country. She was even invited to play for U.S. Soccer, spending time with the U-15 and U-17 youth women’s national teams.

This created a unique situation of trying to manage her scoliosis without disrupting her soccer career. Doctors had to carefully observe her spine to make sure the curve didn’t progress to a dangerous level. There came a point when Glenn knew it would need to be corrected in surgery at some point, but she also knew that having the surgery, along with the rehabilitation and recovery, might complicate her career, and wanted to avoid it for as long as she could.

So, with her doctors Glenn made the decision to continue with observation and pursue her dream of playing Division-I college soccer.

“Maybe being an inch or two shorter than I probably could’ve been without scoliosis, it only made me a more technical player because I had to be better with my skills and I couldn't rely on my physicality as much, and that's what pushed me on to the high level of college soccer,” she said.

Glenn attended Santa Clara in California from 2019-2022. Even as she continued living with scoliosis, opting to delay surgery, she played significant minutes and was an important factor in the midfield for the Broncos. As a freshman, Glenn appeared in 13 matches and made six starts. She made 50 appearances overall in her four years. She was part of the squad at Santa Clara that won the NCAA national championship in 2020, a final that took place in North Carolina where many of her friends and family from back East could attend in-person to see her team lift the trophy.

The tight-knit team culture at Santa Clara helped Glenn as she managed her scoliosis. She received support from trainers and teammates. They helped her through not just what could sometimes be pain or discomfort in her back but managing that on top of playing collegiate soccer and demanding coursework.

“It’s just a wonderful program with unbelievable support in every aspect of your life,” she said. “I don't think at another program I could’ve studied bioengineering while playing soccer. The support from academics to athletics, the whole community. Especially during the pandemic, I think our community really came together and our soccer team served as a light during that time.”

For most of her career, Glenn played in the defensive midfield, but for her senior year she was called to a different position. That year, she tried her hand, or foot, at attacking midfield. For the first time at Santa Clara, she played the no. 10 role and viewed herself as a goal scorer. She set the target for herself to put one at the back of the net by the end of her collegiate career.

But as the season progressed, Glenn still hadn’t scored a goal, and she started to grow nervous that it wouldn’t happen. As a senior, she didn’t want to leave Santa Clara without making her mark on the score sheet. She knew it didn’t have to be anything fancy – even a tap-in would do. But she knew it was something she wanted to check off her bucket list.

Her lone goal for Santa Clara ended up being a really crucial one. On November 5, 2022, the Broncos were going up against conference opponent Pepperdine on the road. It was toward the end of the season and the outcome held a lot of weight. The winner of the match determined the winner of the conference.

Pepperdine scored early and carried a 1-0 lead for most of the match. It was a nail-biter as the Broncos pushed harder and harder to find an equalizer that would save the season. So, there was no better time for Glenn to score her first career goal. In the 73rd minute, she received a cross from her teammate and scored a volley with her non-dominant foot to even the match.

“It was a technical goal that I never thought would be the one that I put away in such a big game,” she said.

Santa Clara would go on to score the game-winner in the 84th minute. Glenn’s former teammate and current Portland Thorns forward Izzy D'Aquila scored to make it 2-1 in favor of the Broncos. The goals led Santa Clara to their third consecutive WCC regular season title.

“We won the game and became conference champions, so we were able to celebrate on field, lift the trophy and everything,” Glenn said. “That was just my favorite game and my favorite moment as a Bronco was scoring that goal. I broke into tears on the field, which was quite embarrassing, but for me it was a huge moment.”

All the while Glenn was part of a title contender in Santa Clara, helping them win championships, she was continuing to manage the discomfort that comes with scoliosis. That meant six-month or yearly check-ups with Dr. Bruce back home to confirm that the curve hadn’t reached a serious level.

Glenn’s condition was ever-present and she’d even brag to others and show them an X-ray of her back. Her teammates, trainers and coaches couldn’t believe the oddly shaped spine on the scan belonged to their teammate who joined them on the pitch, going through the same drills, juggling the same ball and running all over the same field just like they did.

“The reaction I got from my teammates, my coaches, my trainer sometimes was like, ‘No way that's your back. You don't look like that when you run around. You can't really see it from how you stand,’” Glenn said. “It was just something that not many people knew I was dealing with. It was just my normal. It wasn't a really big thing at all. I just appreciated the fact that I felt healthy and able and could keep up with my teammates at such a high level.”

Ellie Glenn was an All-WCC honorable mention as a sophomore at Santa Clara

Santa Clara’s 2022 season, and Glenn’s collegiate career, ended with a 4-0 loss to top-seed Notre Dame in South Bend on November 18, 2022 in the NCAA Tournament. Notre Dame would end up being a force in the tournament, advancing all the way to the Elite Eight.

While she had the potential to continue on and play professional soccer, especially with the growth of the National Women’s Soccer League and with teammates like D'Aquila being drafted in the first round, Glenn said she didn’t really have the drive to pursue that path. She had other dreams she was ready to go after.

First, it was time to fulfill her promise to Dr. Bruce to repair her back as soon as her senior season ended. Her scoliosis had advanced pretty rapidly during her teenage years, and by her junior year of college her doctor said that not only was she a candidate for surgery, but it was also strongly recommended. So, this moment was always in the back of Glenn’s mind.

“It was more something I think I looked forward than dreaded if anything because I trusted him [Dr. Bruce] so much and I knew it would solve a lot of minor pains and issues I was having,” she said. “But none of those held me back from soccer, so I was just super grateful to be able to kind of pursue my dreams with soccer without being afraid of surgery limiting me.”

Her surgery was scheduled for December 2022. When describing the details of the surgery, and what it was going to solve, Dr. Bruce said that before Glenn’s spine was curved 60 degrees. The operation brought the curve down to about 10 degrees, which is barely measurable.

“She had no idea what it was going to feel like but she's absolutely tough as nails and I imagine was that way on the soccer field and on the training pitch, as well,” her doctor said.

With that, clinically, her body changed. She became longer through the torso. The uncomfortable hump on her back that formed was alleviated. The shape of Glenn’s trunk was also improved. Her flexibility and range of motion felt different, wider. The time will come, but Glenn will eventually recover and build strength in her core.

She’ll also no longer need to wear a brace. The rehabilitation after spinal fusion surgery takes about six months. After that, Dr. Bruce will not restrict her from any type of activity. As he says, Glenn should be good for the next 100 years. In fact, if she wanted to, Dr. Bruce said that Glenn could play competitive soccer again by May of 2023.

One might expect that someone in Glenn’s position might take activities light, especially after having major surgery on such an important area of the body. But just like how Glenn was itching to get out of her hospital room a day after surgery, the college graduate was already itching to be on the move again.

“Surgery went very, very smoothly, and her postoperative course went remarkably quickly,” Bruce said. “She had surgery in December and was asking me if she could go snow skiing in January. She’s just a great patient to work with.”

With a spine that will be good and strong for the next 100 years, thanks to Dr. Bruce and his team at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, there’s no limit to what Glenn could do next. A very bright and upbeat young woman, she really could do anything. But Glenn knows what’s next for her: pursing a medical degree. Glenn has been accepted to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She’ll be starting in the fall with hopes of pursuing anesthesiology or orthopedics.

Ellie Glenn (center) with Dr. Bruce (left) and her mother (right)

Her journey with scoliosis spurned a desire to pursue a career in medicine, at least partially. Glenn’s family was also a big influence on her medical interests. Her father, a former collegiate soccer player himself, is a physician. Just as he started Glenn and her siblings out playing soccer when they were toddlers (four of Glenn's siblings played soccer, one ran D-1 cross country), he also passed on an interest in science in medicine to his children.

Seeing her siblings succeed athletically and academically inspired Glenn. It also created a strong support system. She recalls how her siblings helped her throughout her soccer career. Her brother, who lived nearby in San Francisco while she was at Santa Clara, went to many of her games. One sister stayed with her on the couch as she recovered from surgery, going through movies and TV shows while Glenn rested. Another sister, once she recovered enough to walk, would help her with her medication and take walks with her around the neighborhood.

“Seeing like-minded siblings coming from the same home do the things that I also dreamed of doing gave me the confidence to know that I could do it and we've just been each other's number one support throughout our whole lives. I'm really grateful to come from family of a lot of kids because I don't know what I do without my siblings,” she said.

Her relationship and trust with Dr. Bruce were also a strong influence on her decision to pursue a profession in medicine. The surgeon guided her during the medical admissions process. Even if she wasn’t sure if this was the time to attend medical school, if she wanted to take a gap year instead, he encouraged her to apply anyway. You can always defer admission, he told her, and not lose your place in the process.

Dr. Bruce was not only the doctor who operated on Glenn, who he calls a “quiet giant” because of her confidence, he also mentored her and gave her a unique opportunity to shadow him. Before getting her own spinal fusion surgery, Glenn was able to observe him perform the same spinal fusion surgery on another patient. Her doctor said that it wasn’t so much to ease concerns about the surgery, but mostly evolved from a natural curiosity about medicine.

“She's a very bright young woman and very, very accomplished and just cannot brag on herself to save her life, which is really neat. She doesn't blow her horn at all,” he said.

And for Glenn, her connection to Atlanta United isn’t over. On July 15 in the home match against Orlando City SC, Glenn will be in attendance. She’ll serve the role as honorary captain, get a chance to watch the match with family and friends in a suite and hopefully be able to come down to the pitch after the final whistle.

And to this day, Glenn is fully active. She may not be playing professional soccer, but she can certainly still kick the ball around. Might she be able to kick the ball around with Guzan on the pitch at Mercedes-Benz Stadium? There’s certainly a chance.

"It's just funny because I don't think of myself as being that special or having gone through the challenges that people will associate to my story, but I guess that just speaks there's really nothing that can hold you back from what you want," she said. "Don't limit yourself, don't limit your dreams, shoot for the sky, whatever you want to achieve, notch that goal up and that's where you aim. I think that I've always aimed even higher than I dreamed possible and that's what’s driven my success."

“I never dreamed that my back would hold me back,” she said. “Then it never did because I didn't see it as a limitation. In fact, I think that some things that might be your weakness turn out to amplify your strengths and make you unique.”

Ellie Glenn playing soccer at Santa Clara University
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