Maggie Meier always had a shot
Not even a deep coma could keep the basketball player from showing off her form
This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of ESPNHS Magazine.
The shot was perfect, featuring a form and touch that would have made James Naismith proud. But while Maggie Meier could still shoot with the best of them, she had lost control over the rest of her life.
A rare brain infection had left Meier in a coma for more than two months during the fall of 2008. Most of the time, Meier was a shell of her once-vibrant self and could barely open her eyes. Yet during brief moments, when her family eased a beach ball into her hands in hopes of stimulating her brain, the Maggie everyone knew would resurface.
"Sometimes she'd open her eyes and shoot the ball into the air for a few minutes and other times she'd keep her eyes shut and do the motion, and then go right back into her coma," Meier's mom, Margaret, recalls. "It was amazing and reassuring to see her shoot the ball because she couldn't do anything else. It gave us hope."
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Just months before, Meier had eagerly begun her freshman year at Blue Valley Northwest (Overland Park, Kan.), where she hoped to build on a successful basketball career that already included an Under-11 AAU national title.
But a constant, piercing headache kept her off the court and in bed during the first week of November. By Nov. 8, she could barely eat dinner with her family, telling them, "I don't feel good," as she gently laid her head on the table. Two days later, with Meier barely coherent and unresponsive, her parents rushed her to the hospital. The moment Meier arrived, she had a grand mal seizure, the first of what would be more than 20 episodes throughout the night.
Meier was suffering from mycoplasma meningoencephalitis, an aggressive form of meningitis that causes the brain to swell. Her family spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas at the hospital, and by late December, things looked grave. Meier had endured dozens of seizures, seven trips to the ICU and -- worst of all -- two separate code blues, when the hospital's rapid response team had to rush in and resuscitate her.
"It was like the longest bad dream ever," Margaret says. "Two-and-a-half months in, she was not progressing. We thought we would have to take her home in this comatose state. But then she finally turned the corner."
From shooting the beach ball into the open arms of one of her four siblings to mouthing the words to her favorite songs, Meier began to show subtle yet encouraging signs of life. Dr. William Graf, a member of Meier's team of neurologists at Children's Mercy, couldn't believe his eyes.
"I came by once on my daily rounds and Maggie's mom said Maggie had been sitting up in her wheelchair, shooting a beach ball, but then I look and she's in a deep coma," Graf says. "I walk back in two days later and I see Maggie [shooting]. This was a major, major illness, so it was fascinating because she couldn't walk or talk but she could shoot. And she wasn't pushing it like a toddler. She shot it like Ray Allen."
Yet as remarkable as Meier's shooting was, her long, arduous recovery was just beginning. Much of her memory and motor skills had been wiped away, relegating her to having the mental capacity of an infant.
In February 2009, exactly 100 days after Meier first checked in the hospital, she returned home. The next two months were spent in rehab, re-learning basic tasks like walking, jumping and brushing her teeth. When insurance would no longer cover the cost of Meier's rehab, Dr. Graf recommended sending her back to Blue Valley Northwest, despite the fact that she was operating at a first-grade level when it came to speaking, reading and social skills.
To accommodate her needs, Meier worked with a special education teacher in a separate classroom on speech and reading. At lunch, one or two of her friends would stop by to help stimulate her with social activity. And, just as she had in the hospital, Meier got to work on that sweet shot of hers.
"During my planning period, I worked with Maggie for an hour a day, shooting the ball, working on her balance," BV Northwest basketball coach David Glenn says. "The nerdy part of me said, 'Wow, you really can't lose your touch.' Here's a kid who had worked so hard to be good, and it was all paying off despite everything else she was facing."
Her motor skills gradually improved and her social and cognitive skills returned to their previous levels. By her sophomore year, Meier was well enough to return to the court. She earned a spot on the JV team that fall.
The same girl who doctors predicted would have severe long-term disabilities was back on the basketball court, playing the game she loved.
It was almost as if nothing had happened, especially for Meier, who has no recollection of her hospital stay and early recovery besides what people have told her.
"I don't really think about any of that when I'm playing," Meier says. "I was very determined to get back out there with my friends. I've always played basketball, so it was great to be on the court."
The same determination drove her through three years of summer school and two years of varsity competition. A 5-foot-10 forward, Meier helped her team to its first winning season in more than a decade during the 2011-12 season, when the Huskies also reached the state tournament for just the third time in school history.
"The summer before last, I told Maggie that she should slow things down and have a summer like normal kids do," her father, Steve, says. "She told me, 'No way.' "
Meier -- who no longer requires medication and has "physically recovered 100 percent," according to her mom -- is expected to graduate this summer as a member of the National Honor Society and enroll at Benedictine College in the fall. There, she will begin studying her new passion: special education. She's even thinking about trying out for the college's basketball team.
"I want to be a special-ed teacher and work with high school students," Meier says. "I want to show them that you always have to believe and there's nothing you can't do."
Take it from Meier, someone who never doubted she had a shot.
Brandon Parker covers high school sports for ESPNHS. Follow him on Twitter @brandoncparker or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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