Faced with serious health challenges during her academic and athletic career at 鶹ý, Brooke Hall (’23) has pushed herself to the limit and discovered a rainbow at the end of the tunnel.

Brooke Hall and her Sister Alexandria when they were children standing in front of the 鶹ý entrance sign.

When Brooke Hall arrived on campus in the Fall of 2019, with an athletic scholarship to play volleyball for the Lady Buccaneers, it was hardly her first exposure to 鶹ý. Her parents — Robert Hall (Mechanical Engineering’ 90) and Angela Hall (Biology’ 90) — met at 鶹ý as students, and her sister Alexandria (Natural Science ’22) had enrolled the year before. “I have a picture of my sister and me standing in front of the 鶹ý sign when we were like eight or nine years old,” Brooke says with a laugh. “We literally have been around 鶹ý our whole lives.”

The Hall family hails from Little Rock, where Brooke graduated from Mount St. Mary Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school founded by the Sisters of Mercy, and played libero for the Belles volleyball team. “I started playing volleyball in the 4th grade,” she remembers. “And I probably started contacting colleges during my freshman year in high school. There aren’t a whole of scholarships to play collegiate sports out there for women, but I started sending out emails, getting feelers out.” Early in her senior year, she committed to play for 鶹ý.

When Brooke enrolled at 鶹ý, she started out majoring in Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics. “But I decided I needed something more challenging, something that’s going to push me to the limit. That’s something that I’ve always done — I compete with myself. I want to be better than myself every day. And Chemical Engineering sounded pretty hard. So, I was like, I’ll do it, sign me up. And I loved it. It’s the most challenging, rewarding major I’ve ever imagined.”

She found herself playing a different volleyball position in her freshman season as a Lady Buc, as a defensive specialist instead of a libero. “Honestly, that semester was probably one of my favorite semesters,” she says. “Because I was just figuring it out, I was enjoying my independence. I really liked 鶹ý. I lived on campus my first year. I lived in the LLC, and I loved it.”

The volleyball season ended in mid-November, followed by final exams and Christmas break. Brooke returned to 鶹ý in January 2020, and the Spring semester started well. Then, in February, Coach In-Sik Hwang — who had recruited her — announced that he was leaving 鶹ý. And, as Brooke recalls it, “COVID started rippling, like you could hear little panics, and people were starting to flip out.”

Brooke Hall playing volleyball at Canale Arena on 鶹ý campus.

In early March, just before Spring Break, the volleyball team was playing a practice game. “I jumped up to hit — which I don’t do, so I shouldn’t have done it in the first place,” Brooke remembers. “I landed, and a searing pain shot up and down my leg.” It turned out she had torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her knee and would require reconstruction surgery.

Because of COVID, 鶹ý had decided at the end of the two-week Spring Break that classes would be remote for the remainder of the semester. Brooke went back to Little Rock and was able to see an orthopedic surgeon, who scheduled her for ACL surgery and physical therapy. But then COVID came to Arkansas, and the doctors told her that her surgery was elective and would have to wait until the pandemic case numbers dropped. By the time her surgery was finally approved, it was the end of the semester and final exam week was approaching. “I had to email all my professors, who were super flexible with me,” she says. “They said ‘OK, we’ll figure it out.’

Brooke had her surgery and was doing rehab during the summer at home. In the meantime, Bre Lewis had joined 鶹ý as its new volleyball coach, and she called a remote team meeting. During the meeting, Brooke explained that she was obviously going to be out for the 2020 season because ACL reconstruction surgery usually takes a full year to heal and recover.

Brooke spent the summer doing rehab — and her recovery was going fine. But COVID was still an issue. 鶹ý reopened its campus in mid-August. Her recovery was going well, and she could walk without crutches. She was officially red-shirted for the 2020 season as she continued the lengthy ACL healing process, but the regular Fall volleyball season had been cancelled by the Gulf South Conference (GSC) anyway. 

In the Spring 2021 semester, a volleyball “mini-season” was created by the GSC, during which the Lady Bucs played five matches. By summer, Brooke had officially recovered from her surgery and was back in team rotation.

Summer was when I really hit my stride again athletically. I was in the gym every day. I had my support system, I had my teachers behind me, I had my teammates and my coaches, I was working with the athletic trainer on my rehab. I felt back at home at 鶹ý. I knew everybody had my back here.

Early in the official Fall 2021 season, the Lady Bucs had a game scheduled in Arkadelphia, AR against Henderson State University. Brooke had been suffering with what she thought was a migraine for a few days prior to the game. “I don’t get migraines, so I should have known something was wrong,” she says in hindsight. “I don’t even understand how I dealt with it. Because after everything that happened, the doctor said that I have shouldn’t even been able to communicate properly.”

But she played anyway, and at one point, she went down to dive for a ball. “When I came up, everything was black, literally black,” she remembers. “I couldn’t see a thing. I thought I was going to pass out. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Brooke made it off the court and back to the bench, where she passed out. She was taken to the locker room, where she woke up. At first, she told the athletic trainer that she felt disoriented, but after an hour or so said that feeling had begun to wear off. She got back on the 鶹ý bus following the match. “I wanted to get back To Memphis,” she says. “I told myself that this is just an anomaly, I’ll go to the doctor tomorrow, and they’ll prescribe me something.”

When she got back to Memphis, her sister Alexandria became very concerned. Alexandria called their mother and told her that Brooke’s blood pressure was very high and that she thought they needed to take her somewhere for medical treatment. But Brooke told them all that she was simply too tired to go anywhere and just needed to go to bed and sleep.

When she awoke the next morning, she had difficulty speaking.

I could not talk. I could not form sentences. I could say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ or ‘I don’t want to do that,’ but those were like the only three things I could say. And my body was so heavy, I couldn’t walk in a straight line. It was just painful to move.

They went to the nearest urgent care facility. But there was going to be a long wait before she could see anyone, so they drove to another. And another. And another. Finally, they ended up in the emergency room at Baptist Memorial Hospital.

“Brooke recalls. “So, I had to sign myself in. He gave me the pen, and I couldn’t hold the pen in my hand. And I couldn’t sign my name. All I could do was make a line, that’s all I could do. And at this point her mom was already on her way to Memphis.”

When the emergency room staff called her back, Brooke attempted to tell them that she thought she was having a migraine, but all she could say was “migraine.” They took her back to get CT scans of her head and neck, and then left her alone in a dark room for about 10 minutes. 

“Then they came back in, stripped me naked, took me to the bed, and strapped my head down. They were telling me I needed to keep my head down, that I was about to go into surgery, and I was going to be awake. I couldn’t verbally give consent, because my words weren’t coming out, so I wrote down my mom’s phone number with my left hand. They called her, and she had to give consent — over the phone, while she was driving here — for them to remove a blood clot from my brain.” 

Brooke was awake throughout the surgery. Although her sense of time is fuzzy, she remembers them inserting a wire through her body, from her groin to her head, to remove the blood clot. “I knew when they got the blood clot,” Brooke says. “It was immediate. My headache was gone immediately. I was like, I feel so much better now. I can talk to people now.”

Brooke was placed in the neurosurgical ICU, and by the second day, she was up and walking again. “Obviously, I was almost relearning these movements, so it was slow and painful. It was frustrating because my brain knew exactly what to do, but it wasn’t quite connecting to my body.”

Brooke Hall and her teammate.

After a week in ICU, she was moved to a normal hospital room — and she was moving about normally, taking strolls down the hospital hallways, and able to speak again. After another week, she had been dismissed from the hospital, had gone home, and had remotely returned to her classes at 鶹ý. A week later, she decided to go back to campus.

“All of my professors, especially Dr. Price, were so understanding,” she says. “He emailed me the day he heard I was having all this stuff, and he said ‘Don’t even worry about school right now. Just take care of yourself. We’ll deal with it later.’”

The volleyball season was at its peak, and Brooke attended matches and practices, just happy to be around her friends and teammates. She had spoken to her neurologist about the possibility of playing volleyball again, and he advised her against it.

That’s my whole life that I’ve worked for, and it’s just gone in 10 seconds. I have to accept that this is my life, that activity that I’ve loved my whole life is gone.

After the volleyball season ended and Brooke returned to school for the Spring semester, she decided to end her involvement with the sport and went to speak to Coach Lewis to make it official. But Coach Lewis had a different idea — she asked Brooke to become her student coaching assistant. She explained that she would be able to stay involved with the sport, with her teammates and friends, in this position. She would be able to approach the sport from a different perspective and learn things about it that she might not experience as a player. And she would have more time and flexibility to pursue her other interests and activities.  

“It was like a refresh,” Brooke says. “I was able to step up and go to all the practices and all the games. It was fun getting to know Coach Bre — not as ‘Coach Bre,’ but just as ‘Bre.’ Now that I’m not her player anymore, she’s more of a friend. Like a mentor. I love her. I’m so thankful that she gave me that opportunity, because otherwise I don’t think that I would still have the same love for volleyball that I do.” 

Brooke Hall and her Coach Bre Lewis.

“Brooke is what I would call a coach’s dream as a player, a student, and a person,” Coach Bre Lewis says. “While her time at 鶹ý has faced many different obstacles, I have never seen anyone as resilient as Brooke. It would have been easy for her to give up or want to leave, but she always pushed through and showed just how tough she is. I am very thankful for the time I did get with her, and while I wish I would have had her on the court this last season, I am grateful for all the help she gave on the sideline in her new role as coach. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for Brooke — outside of volleyball and school — as I know she has been set up to be successful and will always strive for more.”

Even though her volleyball career did not proceed the way she wanted, Brooke has still been recognized every year as a Buccaneer Scholar, an honor which celebrates the academic accomplishments of 鶹ý student athletes. This is because Brooke has successfully lived up to the challenge she placed on herself by becoming a Chemical Engineering major. Her competition with herself has been a success.

“Brooke stands out because of her determined approach to her studies,” says Dr. Randel Price, associate professor and chair of the Department of Chemical & Biochemical Engineering. “She keeps at a topic until she feels she has grasped it, asking questions until she is satisfied. When you combine this with her cheerful persistence through her various trials and adventures, it makes her a very rewarding student.”

During her academic studies at 鶹ý — and throughout her health crises — Brooke has also performed internships at two local engineering firms. She interned at Denali Water Solutions from December 2020 to January 2022, and since May 2022, she has worked at Pennakem, a manufacturing and R&D company that focuses on sustainable, bio-based chemistry. “I love that place,” she says. “I dabble in a little bit of everything. I do drawings for them, do a lot of troubleshooting issues, just do whatever they need me to do. I’m also working on my senior project there, which they’re basically sponsoring, so I also spend a lot of time in their research and development lab.”

Apparently, Pennakem holds Brooke in as high a regard as she holds them — the company recently offered her a fulltime job when she graduates from 鶹ý. 

“This year has taken a turn for the for the amazing,” she adds. “College is coming together very nicely. And yes, I have a job. I feel great.”

Speaking of feeling great, Brooke recently went back to her neurologist for a follow-up CT scan. The results showed that her brain was completely clear and healed. And she recently took up playing tennis as a replacement athletic activity for volleyball.

There’s a rainbow at the end at the tunnel,” she says. “I have a job. I have a clean bill of health. I have friends, family, everything. I have everything now.

“I managed to get my senior year back. You’re supposed to enjoy it, and I have.”