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Pretty in Pink
It’s a classic backyard image: a kid flying through the air on a swing set.
Aside from the occasional bumps and bruises, it’s also not something that seems especially fraught with danger. And in truth, although swing sets and playgrounds are often cited for safety concerns, serious injuries remain relatively rare.
Rarity, however, seems to make tragic accidents an even tougher pill to swallow.
It started with Mikaela Deenen innocently swinging in the backyard. But, unbeknownst to her or her family, torrential rains here in Maryland had caused the swing set to come loose from the ground. When it toppled over, the swing set landed on top of Mikaela, crushing her spine.
She says now that she immediately knew that something was very wrong. Unable to move her legs, Mikaela was flown by helicopter from her small town in western Maryland to shock trauma at Johns Hopkins Hospital. After an emergency surgery, she was transferred to Kennedy Krieger’s inpatient rehabilitation unit.
When I met Mikaela on her first day, I saw a beautiful, blond teenager. She had a lovely smile, but at first we rarely saw it. Faced with a new injury and fearing permanent paralysis, Mikaela was clearly emotionally devastated. And, as is common among individuals with spinal cord injuries, Mikaela was also in a tremendous amount of pain.
But she was also surrounded by a large and supportive family. Mom, Dad, step-mom, step-dad sister, grandmother, half-brother and half-sister—they were all there for her. They learned everything they could about how to help Mikaela heal and regain strength and independence. They were the rock that every child deserves to have.
Mikaela’s prognosis was uncertain. After a spinal cord injury, recovery of varying degrees of function can be achieved with the innovative therapy approach developed by the team in our International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, but it takes years of hard work. Yet in some cases, dramatic recovery after paralysis can happen within the first six months, with youngsters historically having the best outcomes.
We wanted to do everything we could to stack the odds in Mikaela’s favor. And this kiddo pushed herself. Hard. Every day. And without fail. During therapy sessions, she often fought back tears caused by the nerve pain she was experiencing. When she stumbled, she made herself go on. She has a determination that makes me smile even as I write this
The change began to happen gradually. First, the pain got better. Then, Mikaela began to recognize her own physical progress. But I knew things were really looking up one morning on rounds, when Mikaela was in bed wearing makeup. I was elated. For a vivacious teen, this was a clear sign to me that she was recovering.
Mikaela lived at Kennedy Krieger for 10 weeks, and we all know that a teenager can’t go that long without new clothes! Sometimes she would show me her latest wardrobe additions, ordered online or picked up by a family member. It was great seeing her excitement and seeing that beautiful smile on a regular basis. I learned something else about Mikaela around this time: Her favorite color is pink. I felt like a teenager again, checking out her cute outfits, all of which included lots of her favorite color.
Like many teens, Mikaela is talkative and wants to be on the move. She knows what she wants and goes for it. While some are exhausted after hours of therapy, Mikaela thought of her downtime as an opportunity to practice. Motivated to see the many friends she had made, Mikaela would use her walker, and later crutches, to visit the rooms of others on the inpatient unit. Even though she only began walking with crutches two weeks before her stay at Kennedy Krieger ended, she was determined to leave having mastered the skill.
Mikaela became close with everyone she encountered. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and she even convinced her physical therapist, Lauren Edwards, to wear pink scrubs and matching braids for her last week in therapy. Before leaving, Mikaela expressed to Lauren that she has a plan. She wants to go to Penn State and become a physical therapist so that she can help other kids who find themselves in similar situations. There is no doubt in my mind that if this is what she wants, Mikaela will make it a reality.
The night before she left, Mikaela reported that she couldn’t sleep. She was just too excited. She told her mother that knowing she was leaving the next day, walking, was better than Christmas.
When morning came, she used her crutches and ankle braces—both pink, of course—to head towards the elevator. I will never forget the pride I saw on her face as she walked away from our unit. I hated to see her go, but loved to watch her walk away.