Maggie Meier couldn’t feel pain, she couldn’t interact with people, she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t turn over in bed without help and she certainly couldn’t walk.
But for brief periods, the 14-year-old basketball star from Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kan., would awake from her coma and pass a ball in her hospital room with perfect form.
“She was very severely ill,” neurologist Dr. William Graf, who treated Meier in 2008-2009 at a Kansas City hospital, told msnbc.com Friday. “The depth of her coma is not in question. The way she woke up from it is highly unique.”
Maggie’s shooting skills while comatose, and her remarkable recovery, have attracted international attention ever since she and her family went public a couple of weeks ago in the Kansas City Star.
Graf, professor of neurology and pediatrics at Yale, figures that shooting a basketball must have been hardwired into a part of Maggie’s brain that remained relatively unscathed from illness sparked by a respiratory infection.
“This was a wiped-out memory bank,” he says, “but one thing that wasn’t wiped out was her ability to shoot with perfect form.”
From third grade on, “she probably shot 500 times a day,” he says, emphasizing, “this girl was a star athlete. It needs to be clear that she was super, to the point of being on a national championship team.”
Meier's case was a first for Graf -- and while it might be possible for a comatose concert pianist to be able to play a keyboard before recovering any other ability -- it’s unclear “why someone would have a certain function come back faster than another,” he says.
A high school freshman, Maggie had just lettered in varsity volleyball and was scheduled to play on the school basketball team when she became ill in November 2008. She’d been complaining of a bad headache and then started having nonstop seizures.
It took Graf and his colleagues a few weeks to figure out what was making Maggie so sick. She had a rare brain infection called mycoplasma meningoencephalitis. It's not known how she contracted the illness.
Graf remembered a patient he’d seen in the mid-1990s who had the same infection. That boy went on to make a full recovery. He shared the story with Maggie’s parents, with whom he’d bonded over their shared love of girls’ basketball. Graf has a daughter who plays college basketball.
“This is a bad illness,” Graf told them. “We need to support her through this. You’re going to have to be very patient.” After she’d been in a coma for two months, though, Graf says, even he was starting to get cold feet.
Maggie spent 100 days in the hospital, her mother Margaret, a nurse, by her side the entire time, Graf says. After coming out of the coma, she spent eight months learning how to walk and read again. “When I saw her five months out, I was thinking we’re looking at moderate disability here.” She was still drooling, and the former honors student could barely read a Dr. Seuss book. “I thought she’d need a lot of special education.”
But Maggie surpassed everyone’s expectations. “This girl is a fighter. And, like a little kid, she reprogrammed her brain.”
Although she missed her freshman year, her teachers helped Maggie regain her reading ability and is graduating with her class this year. She’ll attend college in the fall. Her best physical therapy, Graf says, has been her return to the basketball court and participation on the varsity team.
Says Graf, “If you’re an optimist, the cup is 90 percent, 95 percent full here.”
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