“I’ll be back soon”

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.

 Elena Bradley is physical therapist in the Pediatric Rehabilitation Unit at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

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8 Responses to “I’ll be back soon”

  1. Reading this gave me the chills… What an incredible story of bravery and determination! Thanks for everything you do and for sharing this, Elena :)

  2. Nisha says:

    Thanks a bunch for spending some time to explain the terminlogy towards the novices!

  3. Mary Miller says:

    A wonderful and inspirational story. Morgan is my cousin’s granddaughter and our family has followed her amazing progress for the last 5 years. She is inspirational not only to others who have had medical problems, but to everyone who has a problem – and that includes all of us. Thank you, Elena, for writing about a special child who inspires all of us. Mary Miller

  4. David and Carolyn Dunnigan says:

    Elena, your beautiful recolections of those early days, richly re-create in us the same feelings we experienced back then — a bitter mixture of sadness and caring along with positive “I’ll be back soon” hopefulness.

    The goal setting, tenacity and determination with good humor of a little girl paid off — with your wonderfel professional support and guidance.

    We are reminded of your good humor and support of Morgan’s recovery daily because of a beautiful photo of you smiling, supporting a smiling Miss Dunnigan. An encouraging site to see.

    Watching Morgan grow up and improve on our every visit, gives us great strength and growing faith that Morgan will succeede in everything she sets her mind too. That would not have been posssible without your determination to make her little body start working again. You and all of your colleagues at Kennedy Kreiger will always hold a very special place in our hearts.

    Thank you, thank you.

    David and Carolyn

  5. Marcia Matthews says:

    I just had dinner with Morgan and her family last week. I had not seen her since she was an infant and had followed her story of courage over these last 5 years. What amazes me today is how “normal” she is: how she opens sliding doors for her brother, fools around with her brother, and wears braces like any other 11 -year -old. This is one brave kid who inspires any one who knows of her story. Her determination to lead an independent life is apparent every minute. What a privilege to have spent time with her!

  6. Dylan and Brendan Dunnigan says:

    Thank you Elena for giving us the story. It was deeply interesting to get your perspective on the story. We miss our cousin Morgan being in San Francisco. We’ll be seeing her this summer. I’m really glad you helped Morgan out. Her Cousin, Dylan.

    Thanks for all the wonderful caregiving you gave to Morgan. When we see the photos of you with Morgan your warm encouraging spirit is clearly evident. Keep up the great work! Brendan Dunnigan, Morgan’s other silly Uncle.

  7. Editor says:

    Thank you all for your comments. It’s great to hear from Morgan’s family and friends.

  8. Elena Bradley says:

    Thank you all for sharing your posts and kind thoughts of Morgan. Morgan is an incredible inspiration to so many – her family of course, but also the children in her classes, people in her community, and so many others around the world who may not have even had the pleasure of meeting her. It has been such a gift to be able to work with Morgan and her family, and I so much look forward to seeing them every year!

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