September 17, 2013

Englewood, Colo.

Kenzie Gorden bent her neck and its long pink scar to the left. To the right.

She stood in a swimming pool at Craig Hospital, where for two months this past summer the therapists tried to teach her legs to walk again.

In the pool, she stretched and bent her body and knees. She strengthened her abdomen and arms. She lifted and pushed a small baseball bat through the water.

The folks at Craig - who rehabilitated Kenzie after her crash last year - re-evaluated her in March, and she showed great progress. She had the potential to walk again, with help.

That made her eligible this summer for the national NeuroRecovery Network program, which puts a special treadmill in top-notch rehabilitation hospitals and trains therapists to use it.

Not long after she graduated from high school in May and failed to walk across the gymnasium stage to get her diploma, she returned to the Colorado hospital.

Several days each week the Craig therapists strapped Kenzie into a yellow harness that wrapped around her hips and waist and shoulders. In it, she hung from a metal plate that squeaked with each step.

Three therapists were with her on the machine - one to hold her torso and two to move her legs.

Kenzie's job was to keep her body limp. The exercise is supposed to teach her legs to walk without the normal signals from her brain, which were weakened when her neck broke in the crash more than a year before.

Kenzie chewed gum along the way. It helps her breathe. Two steps every three seconds.

Her legs trembled.

Another patient at the hospital who was seated nearby leaned forward: "You see her legs shaking?" he pointed. "That means she'll walk again."

Kenzie strengthened her arms with weight machines and practiced walking with two other exercises - one in which two therapists helped her walk across the Craig gymnasium, and another in which she hung from a track and practiced her steps. Her feet need to move back-to-front without crossing paths.

By the end of the two-hour workouts Kenzie was exhausted. Her lips often turn blue from a lack of oxygen.

A therapist tried to help Kenzie stand from her wheelchair, but Kenzie's legs were limp.

"Oooo, we got a whole lot of nothing left in there," the therapist said.

One more try.

One. Two. Three.

"There it is," the therapist said as she helped Kenzie ease back into her wheelchair. "That was so much better. You deserve a nap."

And that's what Kenzie sometimes did in the afternoons before the family ventured out for dinner or sightseeing.

Her mother Karen was with her for the duration of her stay in the Denver suburb. Others came for a week at a time to visit.

Like her older sister and brother-in-law, Stephanie and Eric Burns, of Lake City. They used their last vacations days from work at Farner-Bocken for the trip.

Together, they drove west into the Rocky Mountains and stopped at a nature preserve for big cats. Kenzie glimpsed lions in their expansive pens from a walkway suspended above.

They shopped in a western Denver suburb at a big sporting goods store, where Kenzie looked for some cute flip-flops or a new pair of neon-something-colored shoes. The tips of Kenzie's shoes wear quickly from her toes dragging. She loves neon.

Just inside the door, her left leg straightened out from her chair, cramping from the exercises.

"Mom," she called, and Karen leaned down to massage.

They bought no shoes but went to another store, where Kenzie found some neon yellow shorts trimmed with leopard print.

Back to school

Kenzie had hoped to walk out of Craig Hospital.

It was a lofty goal she didn't reach, but, nevertheless, her progress was great.

One example: she went to the hospital in June able to stand a mere 29 seconds with the support of a walker. By the end of her 10-week stay, she could go for more than five minutes.

Her progress slows when she returns to Lake City, where physical therapists aren't specially trained to help someone like Kenzie. But life was moving forward in other ways.

She enrolled at Iowa Central Community College, where she goes two days each week to study anatomy, nutrition and athletic injuries this semester. She hopes to be a nurse for cancer patients.

She hitched rides with a friend to school, but the friend decided last week to move to Fort Dodge, so Kenzie must find her another way to class. Karen, a teacher in Lake City, drove her today. They'll find a way to make it work, as they have each day since the crash.

Her fellow students in Fort Dodge are strangers, and they don't know her story. Most don't ask about the wheelchair, but one girl wondered whether she'd been paralyzed her whole life.

Kenzie gave a brief, off-the-cuff explanation. She talks better that way. No need for a rehearsed speech.

"Oh," the girl replied. "Well, you look good."

'I know I can do it'

Kenzie wrapped herself in a shiny turquoise dress that hung from one shoulder for her sister Brittanie's wedding this month.

She was the maid of honor.

With her hair pinned to one side by a peacock feather, and her silver sandals glittering, she wheeled down the aisle near the front.

She stopped, and her brother Nick and the best man pulled her to her feet.

They held her as she took the final, small steps to the front.

One, two.

Right foot, left.

Brittanie cried in the back of the hall, waiting to take her turn down the aisle. It was a big moment for both.

The music changed and Brittanie strode as Kenzie stood, waiting for her at the front.

The sisters embraced and held for a bit.

Those in the audience who knew what it meant - who knew how Kenzie had tried and failed at graduation to prove wrong the Des Moines doctor who said her legs would never move again - cried.

Kenzie walked.

At the other end of the pool was a young, good-looking guy who had nearly died four months before, when a tumor in his brain ruptured and the surgery to save his life paralyzed his left side.

"OK. Bring it," he shouted to his three friends, holding that small bat.

He wanted to show his buddies how far he'd come. They pitched a squishy ball to him, and he swung and sent the ball skittering across the water four times.

One skimmed Kenzie's head, which lay askew, just above the water's surface.

"Hey, I already broke my neck. What's the worst he could do?" she laughed.

And in that moment, all of the struggles of the past year since her pickup truck tumbled down a hill faded into the background.

Kenzie was just another teenage girl, flirting with a handsome boy as they chatted in the pool.