On Her Own Two Legs

July 8, 2011
When an uncanny twist of circumstances left Morgan Dunnigan paralyzed, doctors predicted her condition was permanent. With Kennedy Krieger’s help she proved them wrong.

Morgan DunniganLaying in a hospital bed on a Sunday night, Morgan Dunnigan believed her parents and physician when they said she would wake up the next morning for a surgery that promised to make the pain in her neck disappear, make the tumor hurting her spine go away, make everything better.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Instead, the next morning—a cold Monday in December 2005—she woke up paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe unassisted.

The story behind 6-year-old Morgan’s ordeal began with a strange itching sensation in her neck. It didn’t seem major, says her mother, Laura Dunnigan. Morgan would scratch her neck and go on about her business. But eventually the scratching and itching evolved into pulling and tugging at her neck and shoulder muscles, trying to relieve the discomfort. “Even Morgan’s teacher started to notice she was pulling at her neck, but that she seemed to be able to go about her day,” Laura recalls. “It wasn’t until it really became painful one night, well after multiple doctors couldn’t find a reason for it, that we took her to the emergency room.”

The seven months prior held series of misdiagnoses and misguided opinions: maybe it was stress, maybe a skin condition, maybe it was the detergent they used, maybe she was just looking for attention after the birth of her baby brother. “But then in December she started crying in her sleep, saying it hurt,” Laura remembers. Distraught, exasperated, and at their wit’s end, Laura and Morgan’s dad, Colin, took her to a local hospital, where an MRI revealed a tumor growing along her spine.

The doctor surmised the tumor had been growing there since she was a baby, gradually compromising her spine and the surrounding nerves. He recommended surgery, and soon. But in a horrible twist of fate, the night before her surgery, Morgan’s spine could take no more. The tumor won while she slept, and the Dunnigans were horrified when they woke their daughter that morning and discovered she could not move. Then, as they were wheeling her into the surgical unit, she began struggling to breathe.

Morgan During TherapyColin’s last memory of her that morning was the sight of a nurse using a breathing bag on Morgan as her oxygen dropped to a dangerously low level. The operation was successful and the tumor removed, but the damage seemed to be done. Morgan woke from surgery still unable to move or breathe.

With the surgery complete and the tumor successfully removed, the Dunnigans searched for a hospital to help Morgan recover. But there was another devastating challenge for the family to contend with: None of the physicians Laura and Colin consulted believed Morgan could recover. “They didn’t even refer to her by her name,” Laura says, her eyes welling with tears. “They kept saying, ‘As a quad, your daughter will do this.’ That was very upsetting.”

Determined to keep searching, the Dunnigans eventually came to the office of Dr. John McDonald at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute. The moment they arrived, hope came on the horizon. The people in the center, Laura says, wanted to know about Morgan as an individual—her likes and dislikes, her personality, her life before the injury—not just the severity of her injury. Best of all, while other hospitals declared it impossible for Morgan to walk again, the staff at Kennedy Krieger—after an exhaustive battery of tests and reviewing her medical history—believed it not only possible, but probable. “Dr. McDonald said, ‘There’s no reason Morgan can’t walk again,’” Laura says. “They didn’t know when it would be. It could be four weeks, four months, or four years. But finally we had hope.”

Even so, there was still hard work ahead. And so began months of intensive therapy. When Morgan was admitted to Kennedy Krieger on January 10, 2006, she was capable only of a slight arm movement. Prodded by her mom, dad, and therapist Elena Bradley, Morgan worked incredibly hard, using a variety of the technologies available at Kennedy Krieger’s state-of-the-art physical therapy gym, including an innovative functional electrical stimulation (FES) bike, which stimulates paralyzed muscle, promoting movement and reanimation after paralysis. But it wasn’t all work and no play. In fact, play, as it turned out, proved an important part of Morgan’s recovery, from coloring to crafts to games. “Of all the places we looked at, I’ve never seen a place as playful as Kennedy Krieger,” Laura says. “They really make it fun for these kids. They don’t just say, ‘OK, let’s do sit-ups.’ They find a way to make it fun. And I really think that made a major difference.”

Morgan Walking During TherapyBarely one month after arriving, Colin was sitting in Morgan’s hospital room, while his daughter and wife worked in the therapy gym. Suddenly, in came Laura with an astonishing announcement. “She said, ‘Morgan just took a step!’” Colin recalls. It was literally a baby step, but it was a step, none the less. It was one step further than they ever thought possible, and it was only the beginning. “I always tell her how fortunate I feel that I got to see her take her first steps twice,” Laura says. “The second time, in some ways, was even better, because they were so hard-won."

And just a few weeks later in May, four months after she rolled into Kennedy Krieger on a stretcher, she stepped out the front door on a walker. “The day she discharged, I remember she walked out the front door, and down the block, and then we put her in the wheelchair,” Laura says. “And I remember thinking, ‘OK, here we go. We’re starting our life now.’”