Sometimes it catches you off-guard, the strength of a child. It is true that children, though small and often viewed as weak, possess some of the greatest courage that exists in this world. They carry hope for their futures, as bleak as their futures may appear. They have strong wills, fighting to live against unlikely odds of survival.
One such child has astounded her mother. Amy Wagstaff’s 11-year-old daughter Marlee has been dealing with a 180-degree life-change.
Just six months ago, on September 10, 2010, Marlee had an accident that left her permanently paralyzed, and now confined to a wheelchair. She, the youngest in the set of triplet sisters, fell from a tree at Mills Park. After climbing 25 feet, the fall resulted in a broken back at the T5, T6 and T7 vertebras.
How did this occur? The family had played at this park several times per week each autumn for three years, during their brother Brandon’s football practices.
“Mom, can we go play?” her daughters Mary and Marlee had asked.
This question was regular, and Amy let the girls go play with their friends as normal, while she watched her son practice. Next thing she knew, Mary ran up to her screaming that Marlee had fallen.
Immediately rushed to Primary Children’s trauma unit, Marlee was examined, given a CT MRI scan, and taken into emergency surgery at the University of Utah. Neurosurgeons operated the remainder of the night, taking nine hours to place steel rods in her back.
It was at Primary Children’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) that Marlee spent the next four weeks. There she endured surgical recovery, but also two broken ribs, severely bruised lungs, a broken hand and a broken foot. During this time, she was also on an “intubator”—a plastic tube placed inside the trachea—which helped her breathe. Though the intubator was necessary, it became the culprit of the pneumonia she developed. This sickness only increased the life-threatening state of her lungs, as they had been continually collapsing. The doctors decided to perform a tracheotomy—an operation that provided another passageway for breathing.
Over the dramatic four weeks in the hospital, each family member was there to help. The five of them would simultaneously lift Marlee in and out of bed when needed. The Wagstaff family was beginning this steep, uphill climb together.
Amy, who works as a medical coder, leads the family. Her five children are Danielle, 21, Brandon, 13, and the triplets Faith, Mary, and Marlee, each 11 years old. Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Amy goes into the office while the children attend Woods Cross School. Each Tuesday and Thursday she works from home to be with Marlee.
When Marlee became paralyzed, the family took on the challenges with her. Their daily way of life involves loving sacrifice.
For example, brother Brandon was devoted to carrying Marlee up and down the stairs the initial three months she was home from Primary Children’s. Amy has a routine of laying out clothes for Marlee on her bed every night, which allows Marlee to dress herself in the morning. Marlee’s aunt Jamie lives near her school, and is able to visit multiple times a day to assist Marlee. Tuesdays and Thursdays involve two and a half hours of physical therapy. The newest member of the family to be of aide is Max, Marlee’s black Labradoodle.
“When Marlee found out we were getting Max, her anxiety at night left. She was able to sleep again,” Amy said.
Max is being trained to help Marlee with everything, and eventually will also be a “student” at Woods Cross School.
“An anonymous person has gifted Max to our family, also offering pay for Max’s trainer. There are no words to express my gratitude, as Max has already made a huge difference. I used to think I was on my own with this, being a single mom, but it has been amazing to see the people that have come beside us and helped us. It has been an eye-opener, showing me that there really are people who care and who are generous to help,” Amy said.
Marlee is the leader of the triplets, according to her mother. “She has always been protective of her sisters and doesn’t mind standing up for them. She says if anyone is mean to them, she would roll over them with her wheelchair,” Amy said, chuckling. “Marlee is a tomboy—extremely competitive.”
The triplets are composed of an identical set—Mary and Marlee—and one fraternal, Faith. They have shared a bedroom since birth, but Marlee now has her own bedroom on the main floor. The three have been separated for the first time.
With the bedroom change being just one of many, Amy has seen her daughter’s inborn strength shine even more, knowing this has been extremely difficult for Marlee.
“I look at her and feel like I didn’t even know her before her accident. It wasn’t until I saw how strong and how determined she was to make it that I really got to know Marlee,” Amy said. “I would sit by her bedside thinking about how she amazed me with her will to live and her fight to get better,” she said.
Yes, Amy finds her daughter’s strength somewhat of a mystery.
“She’s been challenged since the accident, and she’s had her days where she’s cried, but she’s never sat around and felt sorry for herself,” Amy said.
The mysterious strength children possess is a treasure desired, one that is sought after in this world. Perhaps adults might discover this courage, learning the ways of the innocent and small. How ironic.
Thank you, Wagstaff family, for sharing a piece of your treasure with us.