Sunday, January 6, 2008

Peer Mentoring Pays Off!

Vermont Herald, December 27, 2007

Morgan Wadkins smiles easily; she seems to consider herself lucky. She received an early decision acceptance letter from her first choice, Champlain College; she has a brand new, spacious bedroom. She has access to the best parking spaces, and she’ll always have a seat.

That seems to be the way she views her life, instead of focusing on the Sept. 29 accident which left her paralyzed from the chest down. Wadkins returned to her home in Washington on Saturday, after ten weeks at Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Boston.

The accident occurred immediately after Wadkins had completed her application, and Chelsea guidance counselor Erica Pearson mailed it in for her. Wadkins has not wavered from her goal of becoming a radiologist, although she hasn’t decided whether she’ll graduate with the class of 2012 or 2013. When asked about special arrangements at Champlain College, she turns to her parents, "Oh. Do they know about the accident?"

The fact that it has not occurred to her to ask this before is a good illustration of the lack of impact it seems to have on her resolve.

"I’m the same Morgan," she shrugs, "just in a cool chair."

Happy though she is to be home, Wadkins misses the friends she made in Boston. "The others were mostly in their 20s," she guesses. All of the other patients had suffered spinal cord injuries, too. Some 80-90% of SCI patients are male, and for a time Morgan was the only female on the wing. They spent many hours a day learning to maneuver wheelchairs, execute "transfers" (chair-to-car, bed-to-chair, etc.) and sit up from lying down. They took field trips out into the city to practice door-opening and even riding escalators!

She was inspired by a visit from 39-year-old Kristen McCosh, Miss Wheelchair America, who was injured in a diving accident at age 15. Her appearance was of particular interest because her injury is at the "same exact level" as Morgan’s: a "C6-C7." Because C6 controls the thumbs and C7 controls the pointer fingers and half the middle fingers, Morgan has limited use of her hands. She does not have use of C8 and below, which means the rest of her hands. She can grip some items between her right thumb and fingers, and learned specific techniques from Kristen, such as the use of a specially formed glove to hold a fork. She even learned to put her contact lenses in and take them out!

Morgan can also type, using a pencil to hit the keys, or through voice recognition software. She also misses her nurses and therapists, on whom she made quite an impression. The back of Wadkins’ Dane Cook poster was signed as a card for her when she left, and the messages are clear:

"You are the best patient I’ve ever had," states one, and another, from occupational therapist Jay: "You are the reason that we do what we do. People as special as you (who are very few and far between) are the reason that we get up and come to work every day—so I really need to say thank you! Your personality alone inspires and evokes greatness. I will not wish you luck because you do not need it."

Morgan shrugs modestly. "They liked me, I guess, because I was always happy." Indeed, her sense of humor is a constant source of merriment to those around her.

"Even at Hitchcock, she was cracking jokes," her mother, Linda, chuckles. During the interview, when her mother suggested everyone go into the living room and sit down, Morgan quipped, "I’m already sitting down!"

Linda is an operating room nurse. Her background was a disadvantage in some ways, according to husband Paul; she knew the risks and worst case scenarios at every stage. Her experience made her a fierce advocate for her daughter, as well.

"Nothing came into that room without being sterilized first!" he laughs. From Morgan’s intensive care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, transport to Boston, and time at Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, Linda never left Morgan except for a quick Thanksgiving trip to Vermont. The family rented an apartment in Boston and Linda stayed there. She handled the insurance and money matters, while Paul focused on preparations at home.

"At first, when she was at Hitchcock, I thought, ‘I’ll just give her our bedroom.’ Gradually I realized that wasn’t going to be enough."

Not nearly enough. After a three-week swarm of contractors and volunteers, the only room untouched is the living room. A portion of the garage has been converted into a ramp from a 30" door to the kitchen. The kitchen needed to be opened up as well, and a bathroom expanded.
After looking at several options, there seemed to be no way around building an addition for Morgan’s new bedroom, so it was built. The room is spacious and airy, with a cathedral ceiling and Morgan’s playful choice John Deere green walls. Her bathroom is nearly complete, with space enough to turn a wheel chair around in the shower. Paul even thought to design an alcove with an outlet to plug in Morgan’s electric wheelchair, when it arrives.

"The whole project just came together, with a lot of help, because it had to," Paul laughs. He repeatedly expresses his gratitude over the whole process.

"From day one, there were probably 100 different people coming through here," he estimates—"friends, family, acquaintances˜and total strangers.

"In four weeks, the whole house was…" He shakes his head. "It was like that ‘Extreme Makeover’ show, but these were all volunteers, appearing day after day."

Local companies donated crews and materials, as well.

"We’re just ready to move forward," declares Linda, "and get into a routine." On Jan. 7, Morgan’s collar neck brace will be removed. She wears it 24 hours a day, to prevent her neck from hyperextending either front or back. This protects her neck while it heals from bone grafts. Morgan can’t wait, although she says, "My neck muscles are gone!"

She also looks forward to returning to Chelsea High School for her last semester.

"Small towns are great," she says, in reference to Chelsea. Paul notes that in Chelsea, everyone knows Morgan, and it feels like everyone, from elementary school to senior citizen, is pulling for her. Morgan’s older brother Chris went to Chelsea High School as well and enjoyed it.

Is she nervous about the challenge of getting around? "Those ramps? No problem!" she smiles confidently. After all—her training ground was the city of Boston!

Morgan admits that watching basketball will probably be difficult at first: "I’ll just want to get out there and play!"

Her father says he’ll be the one wearing sunglasses to hide his tears. "Linda and I will get all choked up, but Morgan? She’ll be fine."

By the end of the summer, the Wadkins hope to sell Morgan’s car and come up with an adapted car for her to drive, giving her back her independence.

Many of the contributors to Morgan’s Care Pages bulletin board, some of them complete strangers, remark that it’s astounding to see how many lives Morgan has touched. Her father has been especially impressed by her strength and maturity. "I’ve learned an awful lot about my daughter through all this. She is one truly remarkable young woman."

Paul says that, beyond the way she’s handled this life change, her story will make more people aware of the issue of spinal cord injuries.

Morgan admits that before her accident, when she saw someone in a wheelchair, she wasn’t quite sure what to do. "I would maybe move way around them or something, just to give them space."

"But if that person makes a point of looking you in the eye …" her mother suggests.

"Yeah, and smiles."

"You just smile back."

The world will surely smile back at Morgan Wadkins, because she always finds a reason to smile.