MANNFORD — In most ways, Meagan Waffle is a typical teenager. She laughs a lot, talks about boys, loves her friends, and is constantly interrupted by cell phone rings and text messages on her cell phone. But Meagan stands out in a significant way. For the past 21/2 years, she has been navigating her life from a wheelchair.
But don’t feel sorry for Meagan. With an attitude that belies her 16 years, Meagan faces everyday challenges with grace and dignity — and without self-pity. Her confidence has enabled her family to cope with an incident that changed their lives forever.
“Deep down in my heart, I know I’m going to walk again. I just wish there was a cure now,” she said.
In November 2005, Meagan and her family were involved in an accident near their Mannford home on State Highway 51. To try to avoid a head-on collision, Meagan’s mother, Kathi Waffle, swerved off the road to save her family. The car rolled, and Meagan and her two siblings were thrown from the vehicle.
Kathi was trapped inside, unharmed but distraught over what might have happened to her children. Ashlyn Waffle, then 9, and Christian Waffle, then 11, had only cuts and bruises.
Meagan was thrown 20 feet from the car, and she wasn’t moving.
The first people to get to Meagan were Jim Johnston of Stillwater and his son, James. They were eastbound on SH 51 when they saw the accident. James said he had a bad feeling when a car came from behind, passed them on the two-lane road and did not immediately get back in the right lane. Then, James saw the headlights from the Waffles’ westbound car.
James said he thought, “Here it comes.”
The Waffles’ car skidded off the road, and the person who had swerved into their lane kept driving, he said.
When Jim found Meagan, she was conscious but in shock.
“She kept saying she wanted to go home,” Jim said.
Meagan has little recollection of the accident. She remembers the car swerving, lying in the dark, emergency lights everywhere, and being with her brother, Christian, in the helicopter and ambulance. She doesn’t remember seeing Jim or his son, or even her mother.
She remembers screaming and thinking her life was over.
“But I was so glad to be alive,” she said.
She understands that even though she is paralyzed, it could have been much worse. She said she was thankful her twin brother, Justin, wasn’t with her, or he might have been paralyzed.
“That would have been hard for him since he plays football,” she said.
About 40 minutes after the accident, a helicopter arrived to take Meagan to St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa. There, she was diagnosed with a T5 injury, meaning she was paralyzed from the chest down. She spent more than three weeks in intensive care with pneumonia. Then she was flown to Shriners Hospital in Chicago to start Rehabilitation.
Shriners Hospitals for Children offers a spinal cord injury rehabilitation program designed to help patients function in their homes, schools, communities and the workplace.
Meagan spent more than two months at Shriners, slowly getting her strength back and learning to regain her balance. When she arrived, she couldn’t even hold up her head. But with exercise, she was soon able to sit upright and increase her upper-body strength.
The first time she went to Shriners, she cried. “I wanted to go home,” she said.
“I love it now,” she said. “I can’t wait to go back. There’s so much to do, and it’s so much fun. It doesn’t seem like a hospital.”
Meagan has participated in almost all aspects of rehab except for psychological counseling. The counselors felt that children with spinal cord injuries need to work through psychological and emotional issues.
“They tried to sit down and talk to me,” she said, “but I told them I was fine and that I didn’t need any counseling.”
Some children don’t have that attitude. One child told her that he thought his life was over until he met her. Now, she said, he is very happy. He even created a group on Facebook (a popular social networking site on the Internet) called “Meagan Waffle is Inspirational.”
Dr. Lawrence Vogel, medical director of the Spinal Cord Injuries Program at Shriners, is Meagan’s physician. He said he believes there will be a cure within 10 years. Ever the optimist, Meagan thinks it will be sooner. She is confident that advances in spinal cord research will help her walk again.
“She’s a very normal teenager with a lot of spirit and energy. She has worked very hard in all the rehab activities and tries to make it as fun as possible,” Vogel said. “Her personality makes it easy to do that. She and the other teens in the hospital are very supportive of each other. People like Meagan really help motivate others to do better.”
He added: “Her family is phenomenal, especially her Mom and grandfather.”
Her grandfather plays a big part in her rehab by helping her every morning with her range-of-motion exercises and other activities.
Before the accident, Meagan thought of becoming a lawyer. Now, she hopes to go to college and become a nurse who works with children who have spinal cord injuries. She’s a diehard University of Oklahoma fan whose bedroom is a shrine to the school she wants to attend.
She said the nurses, doctors and therapists at Shriners inspired her desire to work with those who have experienced what she has been through.
“I am strong because of the people at Shriners,” Meagan said. “They are amazing. If I didn’t go there, I wouldn’t be the person I am now.
“Joe, my therapist, is my inspiration and my biggest supporter.”
Meagan has many goals, and among them is the desire to walk across the stage at high school graduation to receive her diploma.
“I want to be able to stand in front of my class and say, ‘I’ve waited years for this.’” she said, laughing.
After the accident, going to school was a challenge for Meagan. But administrators have adapted to her condition. If she sometimes falls asleep in class, they understand that she may be having a reaction to her medacine. They’ve also converted some space at the school into a therapy room.
Meagan still enjoys a lot of activities with family and friends including eating pizza, attending her brother’s football games and spending the night with a friend.
“That was a little difficult at first (the logistics of spending the night), but we were able to work through it,” Meagan said. “It was wonderful to feel so independent.”
Her friend Taylor Skorupski has been with her through her ordeal. They have traveled together to Chicago for Meagan’s therapy. At eighth-grade graduation, the two of them were awarded the Dynamic Duo award for demonstrating what true friends should be.
“I think Meagan stays positive because she has a great mom and grandpa and really good friends,” Skorupski said. “Plus, she knows she will be able to walk across that stage at graduation. She’s been through a lot, but she’s doing great.
“Her attitude is what is going to get her through this, and God is with her,” Skorupski said.
“God will always be with me until I finish this,” Meagan said.
By Lori DeGeorge
For The Oklahoman