Undauntable spirit

Published: November 8, 2009  |  Source: phillyburbs.com
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Despite a spinal cord injury that rendered her a quadriplegic, Melissa Nunn’s determination and optimism are an inspiration to everyone around her.

Melissa Nunn was a redheaded firecracker of a softball player who attacked the sport’s two most challenging positions – pitcher and third base – for William Tennent High School.

And she did it with the fervor of a weathered veteran, not a wavering 15-year-old rookie.

“It’s tough for any freshman to play at the varsity level in any sport,” says Tennent coach Biz Keeny. “But Melissa didn’t only compete, she really contributed.”

And it was while bouncing between the junior varsity and varsity teams in 2007 that Melissa proved – right off the bat, if you will – where she belonged.

“We actually had Melissa pinch-hit for her older sister, Alicia, who was a senior, during a varsity game that year,” the coach recalls. “It was one of our tournament games and Melissa gets up and hits a home run.”

It was her first varsity at-bat.

“She was just so competitive – that was her thing,” says Keeny. “I always thought, from the standpoint of competition, there were very few that could match her.”

Tragically, on Aug. 8 last year, everything changed.

Almost.

A slip while jumping from a popular waterfall in Hawaii during a vacation left Melissa a quadriplegic. The injury took away her ability to use her legs. Now, her arms and hands also are impaired.

But more obvious to those throughout the Warminster community who know Melissa – and the dozens more who have crossed her path since – is that her competitive fire remains totally intact.

It could not be extinguished.

A family’s worst nightmare

Carl, a Peco Energy employee, and Michelle, a teacher’s aide, saved for months for the family’s three-week vacation to Hawaii last summer.

But Mom and Dad started the trip without their youngest daughter. Melissa had softball games with her travel team, so her vacation was pushed back.

Finally joining her three older siblings, Heather, Alicia and Ryan, as well as Carl’s brother and his family, Melissa was into her fourth day when a quick trip to Kipu Falls on the island of Kauai turned her world around.

Fed by the Huleia Stream that snakes its way to Nawiliwili Bay, it’s not rare for people to spend entire afternoons leaping from the rocks into the shimmering pool 15 feet below.

Melissa enjoyed one jump.

On her second, she slipped trying to launch herself past protruding rocks near the shore. The slight slip took away her momentum and she struck her head on a rock at the end of an uncontrolled tumble.

Barely conscious, she kept herself afloat using her arms.

But something was wrong. Her legs wouldn’t cooperate.

She was rescued from the water, her parents unaware of the nightmare unfolding ahead.

“It was the worst day of my life,” Carl says. “Heather came running back and said Melissa fell. I never saw it.”

Rushed to The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, the 16-year-old remained in critical condition for two weeks. The injury between her C6 and C7 vertebrae required surgery.

That was just the beginning.

She was placed on a ventilator as she battled pneumonia. Her lung collapsed. She contracted a blood clot in her leg.

Improving enough to be transported via air ambulance to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, Melissa was at least closer to home.

But she was still deep in the woods.

In a heartbreaking four-month dance of “one step forward, one step back,” her rehabilitation was constantly interrupted.

A bout with urosepsis landed her in neighboring Hahnemann University Hospital for three weeks as the potentially fatal urinary tract infection spread poison throughout her body.

“She went through two days of literal delirium there. She had no idea where she was at,” Carl remembers. “She was banging on the side of the bed. It was terrible. To come out of that – it just showed a lot about what type of determination she had.”

After Hahnemann came a stay at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where doctors worked to repair her failing kidneys.

Then they found an enlarged heart.

No kidding.

In addition to more immediate medical issues, the rigid state of her muscles, caused by uncontrollable nerve impulses, was extreme.

At times, two grown men couldn’t straighten her legs. It made rehabilitation difficult and painful.

Lori Schwarz, a 27-year-old occupational therapist, became much more than an aide for Melissa during this time.

She became her friend.

Recalling one of their first conversations, Schwarz says Melissa’s maturity was evident right away.

“She was such a problem-solver, such a good kid,” says Schwarz, who recently left the East Coast to work as a traveling therapist out west. “I have yet to see her break or lose her drive, attitude or sense of humor.

“She told me in the hospital she would stay positive until the day she walked, and if she never did, she would still stay positive. She is truly one of a kind.”

On Jan. 16, after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, Melissa returned to the family’s home on Willow Drive. There, she was met warmly by a welcoming committee of more than 100 people.

They had come out on the coldest night of the winter.

Once an athlete, always an athlete

Now 17, Melissa is a junior at William Tennent. Like any teenager, she has mixed feelings about high school.

“It’s OK, I guess,” she admits. “I like seeing my friends and everything again. But I also miss sleeping in.”

And she has a bone to pick with the administration.

“I do hate the carpeted hallways. It makes it a little tough to get around,” she says. “Why would anyone put carpeting in a school?”

It seems to be a problem she can live with.

Months of rehabilitation were rewarded in March as Melissa gained the strength to leave her power chair for a manual wheelchair. The added sense of freedom she gets pushing herself not only builds her upper body, it fortifies her confidence.

More importantly, Melissa has been able to make a miraculous return to sports.

She joined the Eagles – the Magee Eagles, a quad rugby team.

Originally dubbed “murderball,” quad or wheelchair rugby is a serious contact sport where combatants are thrown into a blender full of spokes, wheels and attitude.

The sport eventually reached the mainstream through the 2005 documentary, “Murderball,” featuring Mark Zupan as one of its most unforgettable characters. Sporting tattoos, a shaved head and a menacing on-court persona, he is a former captain of the United States quad rugby team.

The 34-year-old also played varsity football and soccer in high school before being paralyzed following an automobile accident.

His rough appearance makes Zupan and Melissa + well, somewhat of an odd couple.

But Melissa says their shared warrior mentality kind of makes them kindred spirits.

Working her way back

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and Melissa is getting dressed at Magee’s outpatient rehabilitation facility in Philadelphia.

Having progressed to the point where the focus has shifted from survival to revival, she visits the center two days a week instead of going to school.

A baclophen pump surgically inserted at the end of July has greatly boosted her physical abilities. Implanted under the skin in her belly, the pump looks like a hockey puck. A catheter tube that runs from the pump around to her back channels medicine to her spine and helps control severe muscle spasms and cramps Melissa has had to endure.

Accompanied by her mother, Melissa is ready to work.

Michelle played softball through college. Besides passing on athletic ability – and her fiery red hair – it’s obvious where her daughter’s drive was born.

Melissa’s has what doctors call an “incomplete injury” to the spinal cord. She can feel sensations all throughout her body – and she has even been able to move toes.

More and more toes as time has passed, says a hopeful mother.

“We don’t know what the future holds, really,” Michelle says almost matter-of-factly. “But we’re never giving up. You can’t lose hope.”

Balancing and shifting herself from a 2-foot-high bench to her wheelchair, Melissa starts practicing “transfers.”

For her to become more independent, getting in and out of her chair without help is critical.

Throughout August and September, occupational therapist Michelle Davidoff worked with Melissa during daylong outpatient rehab sessions.

Now, Davidoff helps Melissa learn needed skills for daily living.

But what used to take an hour takes Melissa about half that now.

After somewhat easily sliding on a pair of red sweats over her legs and wriggling them over her waist, she moves on to her socks. Instead of putting them right on her feet, however, she pulls them over her hands first and works them on.

Next come the shoes. And if you think Melissa’s purple Nikes sport Velcro closures, guess again. The minutes spent struggling and straining to tie laces help strengthen hands and fingers.

A standing exercise follows.

Melissa leans on two people – one being Mom, of course – as she pushes herself to see how long she can keep upright. Doctors are uncertain whether Melissa will ever do this alone.

Told about her recent rehab work, therapist-turned-sidekick Schwarz says she’d seen it all before.

“If Melissa could walk with her willpower alone,” she says, “she would be running.”

The day is not all about building Melissa’s body, however.

Physical therapist Robin Fleckenstein, Davidoff and the rest of the staff also provide practical advice. Learning Melissa suffered a flat tire at school on her manual chair and was forced to use her power chair, Fleckenstein deflects her disappointment.

“Maybe on days when you know you will be exerting a lot of energy, pushing your chair around all day might not be the best thing. Save your energy for when you think you will need it most,” Fleckenstein suggests.

Like for days when Melissa throws herself into the blender.

Kindred, sporting spirits

If Mark Zupan helped introduce Melissa to quad rugby, AJ Nanayakkara was the first to suggest Melissa get on the court.

A peer mentor at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, he also is a quadriplegic. But he will tell you the two took different paths after their accidents.

Fifteen years ago, he was paralyzed during a karate practice. He spent the next seven years severely depressed, even suicidal.

“Once I started doing rugby, a lot of doors opened for me,” says Nanayakkara, who has since graduated from Temple University and works as Magee’s wheelchair sports coordinator.

“I feel like I wasted so much time feeling like I would never have a normal life again. I really wish I had been more like Melissa.

“When I met her at Magee, it just seemed like she would be a perfect fit for the team.”

Nanayakkara is filling in, leading the now-coach-less Eagles. They are in good hands, however. The 36-year-old won a gold medal with the U.S. quad rugby team during the 2005 Wheelchair and Amputee Games in Brazil.

The practices are Tuesday and Thursday nights at The Carousel House, a recreation center in Philadelphia. The gym is the first government-sponsored facility for people with disabilities in the country and has had a longstanding relationship with Magee’s sports programs.

With Michelle at home, Carl is Melissa’s escort on Sept. 22 for one of her first practices. He is part equipment manager, part water boy.

Under a mural on one wall that depicts wheelchair athletes with the words “Pushing Toward Excellence,” Melissa practices “pick-ups.” It’s perhaps one of the most difficult things to master, but after rolling the ball toward her with one hand and sliding it up the side of the angled wheel of the chair, she gets it pretty easily.

Once a scrimmage breaks out, participants pass the ball to one another until a player can wheel through one of two goals at either end of the court.

But players don’t get a free pass.

Using wheelchairs fortified like Ford trucks, they are encouraged to block, even knock each other over. It looks chaotic, but when experienced players take the court, it’s obvious a great deal of strategy and skill get thrown into the blender.

And Melissa can’t wait to learn more.

Neither can Carl.

“I coached her on the (softball) travel teams, so I know what that game face looks like,” Carl says through a grin. “I have watched her win championships, make all these amazing plays. She accomplished so much there, but I have never been more proud of her than I am now.”

As for Melissa, her goals include enrolling at a college in Philadelphia, the home of her beloved Phillies.

She also is determined to make an impact for her new team – and a possibly explosive one at that.

After all, the Eagles just signed a real firecracker.

“What she has been through and how she has dealt with it, it’s just been amazing,” Carl says from the sidelines at practice.

“I know I am the one that’s supposed to be strong for her, but we’ve all drawn a lot of strength from her, too.”

Rich Pietras
The Intelligencer