Physical therapy doctoral student Gabrielle “Gabie” Owens ’23 and junior social work student Zoe Owens are often spotted together on the UCF campus where they take classes in the same building,  work out at the Recreation and Wellness Center, and are both enrolled in the College of Health Professions and Sciences. The sisters, just two years apart in age, are close friends. But they’re also bonded by an unexpected and traumatic medical event that has shaped their aspirations for careers helping others with their physical and mental well-being.


Growing up, Gabie and Zoe were typical sisters – riding bikes, baking and going on picnics together. They shared everything with each other, including their dreams for the future. Gabie saw herself becoming a marine biologist, and Zoe saw herself following in her parents’ footsteps and becoming a nurse.

Young Zoe (left) and Gabby ’23 Owens (right)

But their paths began to change when Zoe was 14 years old and started to experience severe headaches and nausea. With no known cause, her symptoms persisted for a little over a year until April 2017, when she had a minutelong, unexpected seizure.

“I called 911, and the ambulance came right away to pick Zoe up with my mom to go to Seattle’s Children’s Hospital,” said Gabie. “Everyone was very frazzled. We didn’t know what was going on.”

Zoe had another seizure the next day at the hospital. This one, considerably longer than the first, was 10 minutes long. She received an MRI shortly after the seizure ended, and doctors found a benign brain tumor the size of a golf ball at the base of Zoe’s brain stem. It was pilocytic astrocytoma, a low-grade, central nervous system tumor that occurs most commonly in children and young adults.

Following the discovery, Zoe went straight into surgery to remove the mass. Post-surgery, she entered a monthlong coma.

“She was just in the hospital bed, not able to move a finger or her toes,” said Gabie. “She couldn’t stick out her tongue or even blink.”

Waking Up

When Zoe woke up, she began to experience the onset of posterior fossa syndrome – a condition that causes speech impediments, difficulties in muscle control and coordination, and mood changes. The condition impaired Zoe’s everyday functions.

Gabby ’23 (left) and Zoe Owens (right)

Following the surgery, Zoe was unable to speak for six months.

She began a multitude of rehabilitative therapies, including speech, physical, occupational and vestibular therapy, to help restore her functions to their previous capabilities.

“She had to learn how to do everything again,” said Gabie. “She had to learn how to eat, how to talk, how to walk, how to balance – all over again.”

“I don’t remember much after the surgery,” says Zoe. “But I remember how much my family was supportive of me during that time.”

Almost every day after school, Gabie began accompanying Zoe to her therapy appointments, something she would continue to do in the years that followed.

“I really had to narrow down what was most important in my life, and it was a no-brainer,” says Gabie. “I wanted to be right by her side, holding her hand through it all.”

After years of accompanying her sister to therapies, Gabie began to realize her increasing interest and fascination for one – physical therapy.

“I was able to see Zoe take her first steps again and that sparked some interest in me,” says Gabie. “I loved how they not only were patient with Zoe, but they also reminded her that she could do it with the right mindset and determination. I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do.”

Looking Forward

Zoe would miss a year of high school following her surgery, but with the aid of her parents and a paraprofessional, she returned to complete her classes. She was active in student government, serving as the secretary. Never far away, Gabie served as their high school’s executive president.

After graduation, Gabie enrolled at UCF, completing her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology in Spring 2023 and enrolling in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program that summer. Zoe obtained her associate degree at Valencia College and then transferred through DirectConnect to UCF, where she now studies social work.

Zoe, who still experiences challenges with speech and balance, served as a guest speaker in Gabie’s Patient Care Skills class, sharing more about her recovery and demonstrating the assistive devices she uses to maintain her independence. She uses a wheelchair for mobility and a quad cane to assist with her balance. Zoe has chosen a new path to help fulfill her dreams of helping others; she has decided to become a pediatric social worker to help children who have had similar experiences.

“I feel as though I still have the opportunity to help people,” says Zoe. “My dream job is to work in a pediatric department, specifically in pediatric neurology, to help children emotionally with what they’re going through.”

“In social work, you’re helping people with the emotional aspect, instead of the physical, and that sometimes is most important because without a good mindset or perspective then we probably won’t get anything done,” says Zoe. “You can have the best OT, PT or doctor, but if your mind isn’t willing then you won’t really get through.”

Defying Limits

Beyond serving as professional inspirations to one another, Gabie and Zoe have encouraged each other’s personal growth as well. The two are finding ways to push their limits and test themselves physically.  They’re looking to conquer Spartan races – competitions in which athletes run long distances as well as take on obstacles that require them to scale walls, crawl under barbed wire, and traverse monkey bars.

The Owens family during a Spartan Race.

In December, Gabie and Zoe spent their winter break completing a Spartan, which consisted of 20 obstacles over a 5K course through terrain covered in heavy mud. After completing a Spartan before with her father, Gabie wanted to do one again. This time though, the race would include the entire family.

“Almost a whole year ago, Zoe was like, ‘I want to do one,’” said Gabie. “I was like, ‘Okay, let’s do it. Let’s train for it.’”

Zoe, who was a track and field athlete before the brain tumor, had begun weightlifting to help with her physical recovery. When the family signed up for the Spartan, the sisters began training regularly together.

Although Zoe was making strides in her physical and fitness goals, her balance was still a concern.

“I told her, ‘We’re going to focus on your balance and on getting you stronger,’” says Gabie.

Zoe didn’t use a wheelchair once during the race.

The only support she had was a gait belt around her waist while she held her father’s and Gabie’s hands. It took the Owens family five hours to complete the race.

More than just a race to test both sisters’ physical abilities, the Spartan allowed Zoe to showcase her progress after years of rehabilitative therapy.

The Owens family during a Spartan Race.

“The race was just another thing that I could do to show the improvement I’ve made,” said Zoe. “I was proud of myself because walking is not really in the cards for me.”

Their next goal is to gradually increase their race distances to complete a 10K and then a 21K.

Beyond the trials and tribulations, Gabie and Zoe have become an inspiration for one another. Not only have they inspired each other to pursue a career in which they can share their stories and help others, but they have also shown what it means to be sisters and best friends through faith, grace and strength.

“We’ve truly grown to push each other to be the best versions of ourselves,” said Gabie.