There are many reasons why I am so glad to be part of the inpatient rehabilitation team at Kennedy Krieger. Driving more than an hour each way to and from work is not one of them! However, the determination, courage, bravery, and perseverance of my patients and their families tops the list most days. Morgan Dunnigan and her family are perfect examples of this positive spirit and how, despite tragic personal loss, it’s possible to overcome and return to the happy parts of life that you knew before.
I first met Morgan on Jan. 10, 2006, the first day that she arrived on the inpatient rehabilitation unit here at Kennedy Krieger Institute. Morgan had experienced a spinal cord injury in December 2005, caused by a tumor in her neck. Morgan was barely able to make any of the muscles in her arms or legs work, and she couldn’t even hold her head up when sitting. She couldn’t roll over, sit up, stand, or walk. She completely relied on her parents and medical caregivers for help with mobility and daily living.
I clearly remember her first day. Morgan was anxious and scared, like any 6 year old would be in a strange hospital, far from her home in Virginia. But despite her fear and her physical limitations, Morgan’s spirit shined, and her ability to persevere made it clear to me that she would accomplish many good things during her time in Baltimore.
On that first day, Morgan and her parents told me about a picture that Morgan had drawn (with help) after her injury and sent to her friends in school. The words, “I’ll be back soon,” were written at the top, and I believe that it exemplifies the positive spirit and determination that helped Morgan accomplish so many of her goals.
During her 16 weeks of inpatient rehabilitation, Morgan overcame many obstacles. She’s the kind of girl who always strived for personal bests, and with the support, reassurance, and, of course, good sense of humor shared by her parents, she did make gains every day.
I remember Morgan setting goals for things like sitting fully upright on the edge of the therapy mat for five minutes. She had goals for standing with a walker and braces for certain amounts of time. She even had goals for how far she would walk each day–and she put post-it notes in the hallway of the hospital at increasing distances to remind herself of her goal for each day of the week.
One thing that stands out in my mind about Morgan is her incredible imagination and sense of humor and her parents’ ability to bring those out in her during her therapies, especially when they were particularly grueling for her recovering body.
Morgan had several “friends” help her accomplish her goals. I remember Monk-kee-kee (the stuffed monkey) and Myrtle (the stuffed turtle) who joined us for many weeks of therapy and told stories to Morgan, sang to her, and told her silly jokes to keep her going. Morgan had the best names for her walkers and wheelchairs while she was here, too. And she was always able to “beat up” on her silly uncle when he came to visit her.
Of course Morgan had tough days, too. She came to therapy even on days when she was sick–days when I know she would have much rather just laid in bed. She pushed through therapy late in the afternoons, even when her body and mind were absolutely exhausted from working tremendously hard throughout the day. But, no matter what the obstacle, Morgan worked hard to overcome it.
That’s how Morgan accomplished her main goal of walking out of the hospital, allowing her to live up to the promise made in her drawing, “I’ll be back soon.” When Morgan left Kennedy Krieger, she walked out of the building, went home with her family, and went right back to school with her friends. And, though she continued to require assistance in many aspects of her daily life, she continues to regain strength and independence.
I learned so much from working with Morgan and her family. I remember to celebrate not only the big gains in life, but also to relish the small ones. I believe that Morgan’s parents are the driving force behind her spirit and strong will, and that their ability to love, reassure, and support Morgan in so many caring and funny ways enabled her to be her best, even in times that were so difficult. I only hope that I would do as good a job that they have if either of my daughters were faced with such a challenge.