True Grit

If grit and determination could be bottled and sold, then Megan Miller would be a wealthy young lady. Throw in a tough competitive spirit and there’s a formula for success. Since she was two years old, Megan has leveraged those qualities to become a level 8 gymnast. She never could have imagined that at 15, she would need to draw on those resources for a challenge greater than anything in gymnastics: learning to walk all over again.

Sunday, March 18, was an easy day at the center where Megan trains with her gymnastics team. A little conditioning. Some basic training. Megan was on the trampoline practicing a 1-1/2 front flip for the first time. “I was just messing around,” she says. “I kind of got lost in the air and didn’t know where I was. I don’t know exactly how I landed. I just heard the loud cracking and ended up on my back. My neck hurt a lot.”

That crack turned out to be two broken vertebrae in her neck. When Megan’s fingers and stomach went numb, Megan knew something had gone horribly wrong. “After a few minutes I couldn’t feel my legs,” says Megan. “I was scared.”

Megan’s parents, Doug and Brenda, were called and told that Megan had an accident. No one knew just how serious it was.  They arrived at the scene in time to see a policeman holding their daughter steady on the trampoline until medics arrived and took Megan to the trauma center of a local hospital.

Megan had broken her C5 and C6 vertebrae. A crushed disc had been dislodged, damaging her spinal cord and rendering her paralyzed. “They told us that if she had fractured her neck one vertebrae higher she would have been on a ventilator,” says Brenda.

Megan needed emergency surgery. Within an hour after surgery, Megan started to regain feeling in her legs and her reflexes were responding. The success of that first surgery led to a second surgery four days later. As Megan was in the holding bay of the operating room she looked at a nurse and her true grit came out. “She asked the nurse, ‘So what sport do you think I could do now?’” says Brenda.

Doug and Brenda were first told that Megan had a 30% chance of any kind of recovery. Now the neurosurgeon predicted a good outcome within a year and a half. Even the smallest movement was a big gain. “The whole time she was in the hospital it felt good to see that she was moving after not moving at all and being so lifeless,” says Doug.

By Friday of that week, Megan was sitting up in bed and therapists began working her arms and legs. The following Monday, eight days after being admitted, Megan was discharged to the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Emily Howatt Pliskatt Pediatric Unit in Bethlehem.

From the beginning Megan made one thing clear to her therapists and care givers. “The first thing she told them was, ‘I’m not leaving until I’m walking,’” says Brenda.

Megan’s years of training as an athlete were kicking in. She would need every bit of that to achieve a goal unlike any she’d had before. When Megan arrived at Good Shepherd, she was very weak and unable to do anything for herself. She had some use of her right hand and arm, but her left side was significantly impaired. Megan’s only movement in her legs was being able to wiggle her toe.  Just sitting up was a challenge. “She had been laying flat pretty much since she'd been in the hospital, and when we had her sit up, her blood pressure dropped quickly and we would have to put her down,” says Carrie Bose, an occupational therapist.

“I needed a lot of help,” says Megan. “I got dizzy and sick.”

Megan had to build up her strength, stamina and fine motor skills to do the simplest things like brushing her hair and teeth, and holding a spoon or fork to raise it to her mouth. Just as they’d done since Megan was two and driven to compete in gymnastics, Doug and Brenda remained their daughter’s most devoted cheerleaders. “I told her it was up to her,” says Doug. “How much she puts in to it is how much she’s going to gain back.”

Megan didn’t disappoint either herself, her therapists or her family.  She brought her A game. “She was always very focused and very determined to push herself,” says Erika Herzer, a physical therapist. “The goals she would pick for herself were always challenging. She would try anything we would ask her to do and she always gave 110 percent.”

Megan kept moving up the goal posts. “I remember the first week she was here,” says Erika. “She said she wanted to walk by her birthday in November. Then she said she wanted to walk by the time she went to the beach in August.”

“I’m very competitive,” says Megan with a little smile.

Like the athlete she is, Megan craved the rigorous daily routine of therapy. She even continued to work on her exercises outside of her regular therapy session which advanced her progress even more, says Carrie.

Megan drew on support from her boyfriend and family who celebrated every achievement with her. “Her family is phenomenal,” says Erika. “They advocated for her so much and were here all the time. Without them I know she wouldn’t have gotten as far as she did.” Megan’s gymnastics coach and teammates all stayed close too, pulling for their teammate who was up against the toughest competitor yet: herself.

As Megan got stronger, she began using a walker. “I got the best birthday present of my life,” says Brenda. “She walked on my birthday.”

On August 1, four months after being admitted, Megan did what she said she was going to do and walked out of Good Shepherd. She left behind a team of therapists and care givers who feel like they’ve been part of a miracle. “She is an absolutely amazing kid,” says Erika. “To see her determination, how hard she worked and to be a part of her journey was such an honor. For us to see her walk out those doors was my dream for her. It was phenomenal and so emotional. I think we all were crying.”

As Megan begins her sophomore year at Liberty High School, she is challenged to juggle her school work with three afternoons a week of outpatient physical, occupational, and hand therapy at Good Shepherd. Although Megan still needs a wheelchair, with each step she moves closer to greater independence.

“Megan was just one of those special once in a career kind of kiddos,” says Carrie. “You don’t get to see that kind of progress in a person. She definitely has a story to tell and we encouraged her to tell it when she’s ready.”