Daily Times Herald photos by Jared Strong Editor’s note: This story is the second of a series that follows Mackenzie Gorden of Lake City as she recovers from a crash that paralyzed her in June. The first story was published June 22, 2012.
Daily Times Herald photos by Jared Strong Editor’s note: This story is the second of a series that follows Mackenzie Gorden of Lake City as she recovers from a crash that paralyzed her in June. The first story was published June 22, 2012.
Friday, August 3, 2012

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — How’s it going today?

Mackenzie Gorden’s cellphone rings with the text message.

Kenzie reaches with two pale hands to the phone on her lap and fumbles with the slender device. She flips and twists it with her clumsy fingers and inches it up her stomach.

“I hate this,” she groans.

The phone is just above her belly button when she loses her grasp. The phone slides back down.


Her mother Karen puts down a dinner menu and scoops up the phone in Kenzie’s room at Craig Hospital in this Denver suburb, where doctors and physical therapists and other workers are renowned for their ability to rehabilitate people with devastating spinal cord injuries.

People like Kenzie. The 18-year-old high school senior broke her neck in a June crash on a curvy road just south of Lake City, when she swerved her pickup truck around a deer and tumbled down a hill.

Kenzie hasn’t been able to move her legs since. And her hands that the lanky cheerleader captain rallied fans with at high school football games are now stubborn and numb.

She wonders how much of the old Kenzie will return.

Mom holds the cellphone. Kenzie thinks for a moment and swipes and types with a thumb and its pink nail.

How’s it going today?

Good. She writes the boyfriend who broke up with her two weeks ago. I miss you.

“Mail’s here,” a man in a tan T-shirt and jeans says as he slinks through Kenzie’s room.

He drops a couple of letters and a padded yellow envelope on her table and leaves.

“That might be my recital,” Kenzie says as she pushes a joystick on her wheelchair and rolls to the table.

A friend planned to send Kenzie a DVD of her last recitals at Fusion Dance in Carroll, which were just a few weeks before her crash. She rocked and swayed to four tunes and a finale in each.

The hip hop routine was her favorite.

Kenzie sounds excited to watch. That’s how she is — bubbly and warm and witty with the staff and other patients at the hospital.

But under that optimistic veneer, she worries.

For a moment, she drops the chin-held-high attitude and admits she might not like what she sees on that TV screen:

“It’s not fun to watch people do the things that you want to do.”

Her psychologist at the hospital warns Kenzie to keep tabs on those depressive thoughts.

“You’re going to have good days and bad days. Don’t worry about it,” says Anne Naplin, a seasoned blonde sage. “What you need to watch for is if the black cloud comes in and doesn’t go away.”

There’s another teenage girl on Kenzie’s floor who scarcely leaves her room, Kenzie says.

The long road to recovery

It’s been eight weeks since Kenzie’s crash, and her progress has been slow and hard-fought.

The feeling in her fingers and her ability to move them dwindles from thumb — which she moves with relative ease — to pinkie — which she can hardly feel.

She can’t extend her arms because her triceps don’t work — a major barrier to her recovery. She can’t push herself up if she falls or slumps forward in her chair.

Since the crash, few of her daily tasks are simple:

She eats with a fork with a big round cushion that makes it easier to grasp and types messages on her Apple iPad with her knuckles.

She pushes her glasses up with the back of her hand and shakes her whole body to shift slightly in her wheelchair.

She needs help to roll and wriggle in and out of her clothes.

She can’t brush her teeth.

She’s lost 15 pounds and that lustrous tan from her face and arms.

She tilts her chair every 30 minutes or so to keep sores away from her bony frame.

And there are other less-obvious effects of her injury:

Her body cannot regulate its temperature sometimes.

And she suffers from a condition with a long name that at least once each week pushes her heart to the limit and could cause a stroke. Her chest and shoulders get blotchy — like a poison ivy rash — and goose bumps rise on her legs. Hospital workers rub a nitroglycerin paste on the scar on the back of her neck to calm her heart.

But Kenzie chases those black clouds with a bit of humor and humility:

She got stuck on a hospital elevator last week when she couldn’t reach the buttons after she rolled inside.

How are you supposed to get a wheelchair into a corner? she wondered.

That happens to everyone in a chair at some point, her physical therapists agreed. The ride can be long until an elevator acquaintance lends a hand.

Kenzie’s was “a hot guy,” she gushed. “But he has a girlfriend.”

A hospital that inspires

Craig Hospital houses more than 80 patients — many of whom can’t move their legs and arms — yet its hallways swarm.

“Your toes are in the way!” one man in a wheelchair banters to another as he rolls past on a skywalk that connects the two hospital buildings.

The rubber of his wheels groans as his chair fades down the hallway with hellos and hi-theres and how-are-yas.

A girl about Kenzie’s age with a determined look walks past. She’s speedy. She has a brace on her chest and races laps around the third floor with her mother and brother close behind.

She walks sometimes with a cane, sometimes without. Kenzie always takes note aloud.

This hospital lacks the cold sterility that Kenzie and her mom had seen elsewhere in Des Moines and Rochester, Minn., where she was at Mayo Clinic for weeks before transferring here.

The doctors don’t wear long white or blue outfits, and some of the nurses have tattoos — like the big, biker-looking man who takes Kenzie’s blood in the mornings. She heard he moonlights as a rapper.

These people are professionals, no doubt, and they put Kenzie at ease.

“We try to make things as real as we can,” her doctor, William Scelza, said. “It’s the culture here.”

Scelza is a soft-spoken guy with gentle eyes and a machine-gun laugh. He wears khakis and button-downs.

And he sits in a wheelchair.

Scelza was 17 in Ohio when he rode in a car with four friends that crashed after the driver blew through a stop sign. Two of the friends died, and another was paralyzed like Scelza.

He recovered, graduated from high school and went to college, where he was drawn to healing people like himself.

Kenzie said a Mayo Clinic psychologist told her to abandon her dream to be a nurse. She’s already a certified nursing assistant.

How can you be a nurse when you can’t use a syringe or lift a patient? she began to wonder.

Scelza’s story gives her hope.

The urge to return home

In a large gymnasium three days each week, Kenzie chitchats with other patients as her legs start to spin on a pair of bicycle pedals.

The machine pumps her legs at first, but after a bit the lame limbs are alive again.

Wires and pads on her thighs and elsewhere jolt her muscles. Kenzie takes heavy breaths as the electric shocks increase and her legs work harder. She bikes about 5 miles in 25 minutes.

She’s supposed to think about moving her legs.

The exercise helps her muscles stay fit. Without it they’d dwindle.

With one minute to go, she lets loose a surprised sigh. The jolts have stopped, and the machine takes over again.

Kenzie has up to four hours of physical therapy each day. Much of it will help her stay active and limber and to regain her arms and hands.

She wheels to a gym where a physical therapist helps her stand and another teaches her to lean forward and straighten herself again in her chair.

She lies in a swimming pool where her arms wave with less effort through the water.

Her doctors want her to keep up the exercises when she goes home to Lake City in a couple months. But it’s unclear whether insurance money will buy all of the equipment she needs. That special bicycle that pumps her legs costs $15,000.

Her family and friends will hold an auction on Saturday in Rockwell City to help pay for the cycle and whatever else she might need.

That includes the three wheelchairs that Kenzie will buy to get around her house and her college campus and anywhere else she goes — another $11,000 or so, her physical therapists estimate.

To have all of that equipment at home might expedite her return, which she desperately hopes to make by her high school football team’s homecoming game.

She misses the excitement of Fridays in the fall, when the cheerleaders and football players are dressed for the game and the football moms make pork and potatoes for supper.

She sees herself on the sideline for the September homecoming game, wearing her skirt like the rest of the South Central Calhoun girls.

She’ll yell for her players and keep a close watch on the game and rally the stands when the team needs it most.

That’s her talent.

That hasn’t changed.

Finding herself

Kenzie sits in her hospital room and wonders what to do about her senior graduation pictures.

With the wheelchair, or without?

Everyone she knows has a photo of themselves dressed up, leaning against a tree. It’s clear now that she won’t be one of them.

“I wish I would have done it before” the crash, she says.

Yet despite all the troubles and black clouds since her early June crash — where she hung upside-down in her truck along that curvy stretch of highway for more than an hour, heard that she’d never walk again at a Des Moines hospital, and had her dreams of being a nurse dashed by a Mayo psychologist — she feels lucky.

“Some people can’t breathe. Some people can’t think right,” she says of other patients at Craig Hospital.

One woman’s mouth often says something different than what her mind thinks. Another man with big glasses struggles to steer his wheelchair with his peppered chin — he can’t move his arms.

“At first, it was, ‘Please, Lord, let me walk again.’” Kenzie says. “Now it’s, ‘Give me a hand to use.’”

She thinks for a moment and decides: her senior photos will have the chair.

This is who she is.