A Lake City teen and her family hope for the best but must cope with the thought that she might never be able to walk again. Daily Times Herald photo by Jared Strong 
A Lake City teen and her family hope for the best but must cope with the thought that she might never be able to walk again. Daily Times Herald photo by Jared Strong 
Friday, June 22, 2012

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Think about lifting your leg.

Mackenzie Gorden’s stomach arched as she followed the doctor’s request.

The lanky 18-year-old Lake City girl’s blond hair lay in braids and her neck in a brace. Her pickup truck had tumbled down a hill near Lanesboro about two weeks before.

On a bed at a Mayo Clinic hospital last week, her face tensed, but her legs lay still.

Kenzie’s mother and sisters were silent. It was no surprise that her legs refused to lift or bend or twitch. But it was a stark reminder of those words that are too painful for her family to say:

Kenzie is paralyzed.

The crash broke her neck, and in that moment, so many of the sure things in her young life had faded.

Kenzie was just named captain of her high school cheerleading team for her upcoming senior year. She planned to go with her friends to Hawaii next week for a national cheerleading camp. In the fall, Kenzie hoped to cheer her football team again to state, to that grand dome in Cedar Falls where she danced and yelled three years ago under the bright lights and scores of fans.

But now, her mom sees a different path. She sees Kenzie wheeling herself to a gymnasium stage and being carried across to get her high school diploma. She cries.

Her older sister worries that people won’t be able to look past the wheelchair to see Kenzie for what she is: a tall, beautiful, snarky girl who worked hard to get ahead in school. Kenzie is already a certified nursing assistant.

The family struggles with the what-ifs. And blame. There’s no one to blame. There was no drunk or reckless driver to pin this on — to vent their anger and sadness.

Kenzie was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Kenzie spent that Sunday afternoon of June 3 with her boyfriend Darek Muhlbauer on a boat in Panora.

He’s a sharp-looking young guy from Audubon who keeps his brown hair shorter than Kenzie would like.

Muhlbauer worked early the next day, so the couple went to his Audubon house for a bit, and Kenzie left about 11:30 p.m.

Kenzie drove her pickup truck on a two-lane highway north from Glidden to Lake City, the last leg of her hourlong trip home. She drove up a hill to some meandering curves where one side of the road has almost no shoulder and swiftly drops dozens of feet into a farm field in the North Raccoon River valley. She wasn’t far from home.

On the second set of curves her headlights turned and shone on a deer in the road. Kenzie stomped the brake pedal and swerved right, away from the river valley, but steered too quickly back left and her truck spun on the roadway.

The truck rolled sideways off that steep shoulder once, twice, and landed upside-down in a field.

Kenzie hung by her seatbelt, her right arm pinned up behind her head. Her legs were under the dash, but she couldn’t feel them.

She felt ill, dangling there. She tried to unbuckle her seatbelt, but her left hand didn’t work right.

Country music played on the radio.

After a while her cellphone vibrated. It lay on the truck’s ceiling, and she could see its screen. It was her mom, Karen, calling to see why her daughter had missed curfew.

Kenzie dragged her hand across dirt and broken glass to get the phone closer, but it was a hopeless task. Her body didn’t work right.

Mom called several times more and sent text messages. Cars whooshed by on the highway above, but apparently none could see the crumpled truck.

Kenzie hung there for the next 90 minutes and honked the truck’s horn here and there with her barely working hand.

She wondered: Will I die here?

I have a pickup on its top.

The man who called 911 was Ken Buelt, a Breda paramedic who spotted Kenzie’s truck while on a moonlit motorcycle ride. He couldn’t sleep that night.

We have one girl, as far as I can tell, upside down.

She’s conscious, breathing.

Buelt fumbled for his flashlight and went down into the field. The truck had toppled an electric fence that sparked now and then.

Buelt crouched down and asked Kenzie’s name and age and shone his light on her head and body and arms. She looked unharmed.

Kenzie said she couldn’t move her legs.

The top of the truck was crushed on the driver’s side, and Buelt couldn’t budge the door. The other door was locked.

A girl on the highway stopped to help. She heard Kenzie’s name.

“I know her,” she yelled. She was a friend.

Buelt left the girls to talk — to keep Kenzie calm — as he looked for a way inside the truck. He waited for an ambulance and firefighters to arrive before they decided to break out a window.

Buelt squeezed inside and held Kenzie’s hips as a firefighter cut her seatbelt. They slid Kenzie out a window and strapped her to a backboard, and eight people lifted and pushed and pulled her to the ambulance. At least a dozen firefighters, paramedics and law officers were there to help.

The paramedics kept her neck stable and checked her pulse and blood pressure. Then they closed the ambulance doors and drove to Lake City.

The friend called Kenzie’s mom and told her to go to the town’s hospital where Kenzie was later loaded into the back of a helicopter.

Her dad Steve climbed in front. The chopper lifted and beeped, and they rode at 200 mph over field and road to Des Moines.

I don’t want to tell you this.

She’s not going to walk again.

Steve paused for a moment, dumbstruck by the doctor’s words, and then he threw his fist through a wall at Mercy Medical Center.

Steve said the doctor planned to tell Kenzie, and an argument erupted.

“You don’t, or I’m going to drop him,” Steve recalled saying to the doctors and nurses there.

Steve is 6-foot-8, slender, has vivid blue eyes and is a fiercely protective father. He demanded his daughter be taken by helicopter to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and after a time, Mercy obliged. Officials there declined to comment on the confrontation.

Kenzie flew without dad this time to save weight. The pilot would have been forced to ditch some fuel if Steve rode, so he stayed behind.

Steve didn’t know it, but Kenzie had heard the doctor’s words.

And on that bumpy flight to Minnesota she wondered how much her life would change.

Wake up, Reach, please.

Kenzie’s voice brought the computer screen to life.


The television in her room turned on.


The channel changed.

This is one of many devices that will help Kenzie help herself in the coming months. She can watch those slap-happy comedies she enjoys so much without lifting a finger.

Kenzie lay in a neck brace in a hospital bed last week in a Mayo hospital’s rehabilitation wing. Surgeons had cut open the back of her neck and fused four of her vertebrae together with eight screws, two plates and two rods.

She can lift her right arm, but her hand dangles.

Kenzie takes short breaths, and her coughs are weak — she pounds her stomach with her left arm to help clear her throat.

She sometimes wakes screaming from nightmares. She mumbles in her sleep about lights and other things she might have seen after the crash. But she doesn’t remember the dreams.

Kenzie can feel when someone touches her feet, but the sensation is dulled and tingly. The doctors say that Kenzie shouldn’t hope to walk merely because she can feel — different nerves control feeling and movement.

Dozens of friends and relatives have made the four-hour trip to visit in the past few weeks.

How’s your summer been? they ask, not knowing what else to say. Kenzie doesn’t mind. It must be shocking, she knows, to see a friend in a neck brace who is unable to move.

She cuts the awkwardness by making fun of a boy who dressed too nice. Her friends strike back by hanging a Justin Bieber poster on her wall.

Much of Kenzie’s recovery is already set in stone, one of her doctors, Mark Christopherson, said. Her spinal cord will heal the most in two or three months, although her movement and feeling could improve, at a slower rate, for the next two years.
Kenzie’s chances of walking again aren’t great — 50-50 at best, the family was told this week — but “I have never in my career walked in and said, ‘You will never walk again,’” Christopherson said. “I am not God. I don’t know your future.”

Kenzie can’t heal herself with hard work, Christopherson said, but she can teach her body to cope. Mayo doctors will help Kenzie learn to eat, write and drive, no matter how little movement she regains.

Kenzie’s mom Karen has been with her nearly every day since the crash. Her dad Steve tends the family’s garden center and tree service in Lake City. The long days at the hospital are too much for him to bear.

“You see your daughter lying in bed, hooked up to all that stuff. I can’t handle it,” he said. “I can’t talk to her about not walking again.”

Kenzie’s shoulder throbbed this week, and on Thursday, doctors found three blood clots in her right lung.

The family gathered again in Rochester, worried that she might die. Doctors used drugs to thin her blood and will keep a close watch for the next week. It will take months for the clots to dissolve.

Kenzie cries when the doctors and nurses roll her body side to side for therapy and to keep bed sores away. She’s foggy from a heavy dose of painkillers but can sleep only for an hour or two at a time.

In those moments after the crash, Kenzie said she was sorry. She told her dad she was sorry for smashing her truck — he had just paid to fix the window that a firefighter shattered to pull Kenzie from the wreck.

She was sorry for ruining the trip next week to Hawaii — her mother Karen who coaches the cheerleading team and older sister Stephanie Burns planned to go, too.

She was sorry for all the pain this would cause.

Kenzie and her family brace for the worst.

Those days of yelling and dancing under the bright lights may be gone.