Katelyn Atwell: A True Miracle
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Their physical therapist didn’t want to know why 12-year-old Katelyn Atwell was suddenly so relaxed. When her mother, Sharon, said, “There’s this pool…” the therapist cut her off, and responded, “I don’t even want to know.” Why? Because you probably shouldn’t dip a child who has cancer, is unconscious, has a bacterial infection in her brain, and has a tracheotomy, into a wet pool. One wrong drop? One errant splash? Disaster. A slip of the foot? An off-balance fall? Tragedy.
But the Atwells already knew disaster and tragedy. Holding their small Katelyn in the backyard pool of a neighbor’s yard, swaying her back and forth, letting her legs and arms relax among calming blue waters (they were normally clenched in the fetal position), the Atwells didn’t have many options left.
“It wasn’t the smartest thing from the doctors’ point-of-view. Water and a tracheotomy don’t mix so well,” Sharon Atwell said. “But you could watch her, you could literally watch her, when we put her in the water and swayed her back and forth. We put her arms up and held her up and swayed her, you could watch her legs and arms relax. Everything was relaxing on down. It was incredible to watch. We felt like she was in there somewhere.”
See, Katelyn Atwell was diagnosed with cancer. Then she developed a fatal bacterial infection in her brain. Doctors told her parents that Katelyn had 48 hours to live. They said, “We’ve never seen anyone live with this kind of infection beyond 48 hours.” The Atwells were heartbroken, despondent, and crushed. They could only watch as their beloved Katelyn became unconscious and experienced horrific “autonomic storms” that involved a fever of 109 degrees, and a heart-rate of 240.
“We had four death talks with the doctors,” Sharon said. “They told me she wouldn’t make it through the night.”
But somehow, Katelyn kept surviving. In a coma, she remained in a hospital for months. The autonomic storms continued. The doctors were surprised and shocked that Katelyn survived longer than 48 hours, but quietly assumed that it was only a matter of time. After all, they had never seen anyone survive this. Yet six months went by, and Katelyn was still in the same condition: in a coma, experiencing those storms, unable to wake. Doctors said there was nothing left to be done for Katelyn but maintain her condition. So, the Atwells took her home. There, Katelyn kept experiencing the storms. Her fever remained. Her heart rate leapt. Her family could only watch Katelyn, once an avid swimmer, hold on. They could only pray.
That’s when they had an idea: What if we put her into a pool? Katelyn had always loved the water. A swimmer since she was 6-years-old, Katelyn competed on the South Putnam Seals swim team. They traveled to multiple states for meets. Katelyn loved the water. She loved swimming. So, the Atwells thought, maybe the water could help. A neighbor had a backyard pool and offered it to the Atwells every evening. The Atwells would slowly, carefully, and deliberately carry Katelyn into the pool – careful not to disturb the tracheotomy – and gently sway her back and forth. Slowly, Katelyn’s legs loosened. Her arms extended beyond the normal tight, curled position.
“When you don’t use your muscles, you start contracting up,” Sharon said. “Her hands would clench and her arms would pull up to her chest, her feet and legs were pulling up to her chest. You go into a fetal position type of thing. You have to remember, she had no weight bearing movement for six months.”
She added: “Ray [Sharon’s husband] would get home from work and we’d put her in the pool. He could pick her up and her legs were pulled up to her chest, and we would take turns swaying her in the water. When you got her out, her arms extended out, and her legs were extended. The physical therapist asked us, ‘What are you doing? Because she’s getting so much more relaxed.’”
Hoping for a Miracle
The Atwells kept doing this pool therapy, swaying Katelyn back and forth. They’d sway Katelyn in the pool, watching her legs and arms loosen. They’d hold her and slowly relax her tightly-clenched arms and legs. And they kept praying, hoping, for a miracle.
One day, that miracle came.
Still hoping that Katelyn would finally wake up -- months after fevers and storms and pool swayings and caring for her unconscious daughter -- Sharon whispered to Katelyn, “I love you.” Unexpectedly, just like that, Katelyn mouthed back, “I love you too, Mom.”
Katelyn woke up. Sharon couldn’t believe it. She started crying. But Katelyn was too weak to talk. Too weak to walk. Too weak to function. She couldn’t see, couldn’t hold her breath on her own. But she was awake. She was out of the coma. She was alive.
Sharon later recalled: “The doctor told us, ‘I never truly saw a miracle until I saw Kate.’”
The journey back was long, arduous, and full of painstaking physical therapy. Katelyn couldn’t see for a year. Her weight disintegrated to fifty-eight pounds. Katelyn needed a goal to get her through physical therapy -- some definable, physical goal to embrace and look forward to. Once again, Katelyn turned to water.
Katelyn wanted to swim with dolphins. She always loved the water, and swimming with dolphins was something she had always wanted to do, even before she got sick. So that was her goal. “You have to get strong enough to hold onto the dolphins,” Sharon told Katelyn during physical therapy. That motivated Katelyn. It pushed her.
“We were lucky that she was a swimmer,” Sharon said. “Swimmers are self-disciplined. Most swimmers are goal-oriented. Most swimmers are competing against themselves. And so, in doing therapy, it was all those things she had been doing all along. It was just in a different fashion. She had to learn how to sit, walk, talk, and it was these little steps, taking those two-tenths of a second off, and celebrating those two-tenths of a second off.”
She added: “She finally got strong enough to take a step. She finally got strong enough to hold a breath in. It was all those steps she had learned to celebrate in swimming, she learned how to celebrate those in therapy.”
The Healing Power of Water
Eventually, the “Make A Wish Foundation” heard about Katelyn’s story, and they wanted to help. That organization, along with a golf fundraiser and her local community, raised money and sent Katelyn to Orlando to swim with dolphins. At long last, she was going to experience her dream.
By the time Katelyn arrived in Orlando, she had been assumed for dead by multiple doctors. She spent 203 days in the hospital. She missed her 13th and 14th birthdays. She didn’t remember 812 days.
But with every ounce of her strength, Katelyn lowered into the waters alongside the beautiful creatures she imagined during her arduous physical therapy sessions. She wasn’t the same girl, physically, as she was when she competed on her swim team. She couldn’t move as well. Thoughts came slower. Talking became more difficult. But all she needed to do was hold on to that dolphin, with her strength, her might, her spirit…
She held on. Of course she did. Katelyn Atwell has been holding on her entire life.
“It was a combination of a huge amount of hard work all coming together for this grand moment for her, to have her be able to do something she had wanted to do before she got sick,” Sharon said. “Then, knowing how far she had come to do that, it was such a magical moment. It was magical for her to grab hold of that dolphin.”
Now, Katelyn is 26-years-old, cancer free, and on a mission: She wants to help other kids. She has already granted five Make-A-Wishes. She has raised $200,000 for St. Jude’s Hospital. She wants to raise more. She wants to raise the same amount of money that St. Jude spent on her recovery -- $3 million dollars. Her story will be featured in a book called, “Once Upon A Wish.” She gives motivational talks. She still has some physical trouble, but she is alive, and she is performing her own miracles. Which is just remarkable, considering she was someone thought to only have two days to live, with an infection doctors had never seen anyone overcome.
When I asked Katelyn what she loves about the water, she said this:
“[I love] the freedom that it gives me. I’m having to use crutches and that’s just really, really hard,” she says, stopping and thinking. “But in the water, it’s a lot easier.”
Katelyn Atwell’s story will be featured in a book called, “Once Upon A Wish,” coming out later this year, written by Rachelle Sparks. Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @ MikeLGustafson.