Mind Over Matter: A Rock Valley Student Overcomes the Impossible

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Last year, Morgan Gile seemed to be as normal and healthy as anyone else.  She loved running on the track team in high school, singing in choir and dancing in musicals.  She was working at Subway and a nursing home in Byron while also attending Rock Valley College as a full-time student. Morgan was going to school to be an artist.  She wasn’t sure what field of art she wanted to focus on, but she knew she wanted to create for the rest of her life.  She and her boyfriend Aaron lived in an apartment in Stillman Valley.  Everything seemed to be going very smoothly for Morgan, until she got the flu.

Morgan Gile and her boyfriend Aaron Pagles.

In September of 2016, Morgan began to feel very sick.  She was constantly dizzy, had a fever and was throwing up.  She tried to push through it, thinking it was the flu and she would get over it soon enough.  But the sickness just kept getting worse.  Morgan could hardly stand without passing out from being so dizzy. She could not stop puking.  Morgan told her boyfriend to call an ambulance.  She knew that this wasn’t the flu.

When paramedics reached her she was extremely dehydrated.  They started her on IV fluids once she was in the ambulance and brought her to the hospital.  Doctors rushed to get Morgan a CAT scan.  The results were terrifying.  In the back of Morgan’s brain doctors found a tumor 2 inches in diameter.  Everyone’s immediate thought was cancer, but doctors told Morgan’s family not to panic until a biopsy was done.  To everyone’s relief, the biopsy showed the tumor was benign: no cancer.  However, doctors still needed to remove the tumor, which meant brain surgery.  Nurses immediately loaded her into the hospital’s helicopter and flew to a hospital in Madison, Wisconsin that has the best brain surgeons in the country.

Though the thought of brain surgery was scary, Morgan was optimistic.  She was just glad that it wasn’t cancer.  However, brain surgery has some pretty serious risks.  The worst-case scenario was that Morgan simply wouldn’t wake up from the surgery.  The brain is such a compacted organ; anything can happen during surgery.  But, the tumor had to be removed.

The image on the right of the screen is the tumor before surgery and the one on the left is a clean brain after the surgery.

Morgan told me that she doesn’t remember much from before the surgery.  She was on a lot of medication for pain, nausea and dizziness.  She said all the drugs made her head fuzzy and she couldn’t concentrate.  She simply remembers waking up from the surgery, surrounded by doctors.  They asked her to roll from one bed over to another.  She couldn’t.  The doctors knew that something had gone wrong.

That day, after Morgan was back in her room, the doctor and the anesthesiologist came and told Morgan, her boyfriend and her mother the bad news.  Something had gone wrong in the surgery and Morgan was paralyzed from the chest down.  She couldn’t move her legs at all and struggled to control her arms.  This was absolutely heartbreaking news. Aaron said that he was especially heartbroken because, “everything she loves doing involves her legs, from doing sports, to going on walks through parks and big gardens, or just simply climbing on thing to get the best photo of something.”  She was held at the hospital for a couple weeks while she recovered from the surgery, a tube ran from the back of her head to drain the excess fluids that were accumulating there.  The doctors then decided to send Morgan to a physical therapy hospital in Chicago, Illinois.  The hospital set up an ambulance to take her from Madison to Chicago.  Morgan laughed when recounting this story because the ambulance drivers originally took her to the wrong location.  Morgan’s mom was following the ambulance

Morgan in the hospital right after having brain surgery.

and when they arrived she was confused because her GPS said that they were at the wrong location, and they were.  Morgan’s mom said, “I believe that being at the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute was very beneficial for her. She loved Chicago before and just being there was good for her, every little positive thing was helpful.”

Morgan told me that the staff at the Chicago hospital were very kind and encouraging.  Her nurses, though very positive, didn’t seem confident that Morgan would regain movement in her legs.  The team was very focused on helping Morgan regain her arm movement rather than her leg movement. Morgan worked and worked every day, and every day she grew stronger.  Eventually she was able to draw again.  Being able to draw was a huge victory, especially since she is an artist and plans to be an artist for the rest of her life.

Morgan said that there are a lot of things that you don’t realize you have until they’re gone.  For example, right after the surgery it was very difficult for Morgan to do little things, such as brush her teeth, by herself.  She needed help getting dressed, going to the bathroom, getting in and out of her wheelchair and reaching things that were high up.  All of these seem so simple to people who have never been without legs, but Morgan struggled with each of these every day.

Morgan’s time in Chicago was difficult.  Her boyfriend and her mom would visit her often, but they had jobs that they had to go back to during the week.  Though they both would take time off to be with Morgan, they couldn’t always be in Chicago so there were many days that Morgan spent alone.  Morgan said that even though her friends were just a text away, she began to feel extremely lonely and frustrated that she wasn’t making much progress with her physical therapy.

She was sitting in her room at the physical therapy center one day and decided that no matter how much work it took, she was going to walk again.  So, she sat in her bed and concentrated.  She tried to move her leg for what felt like hours, she would flex but

Morgan standing for the first time since her surgery with the help of a machine.

nothing would happen.  She would try to move her toes but, again, nothing.  Finally, out of pure anger, Morgan flexed tried to flex her leg as hard as she possible could and something amazing happened; her leg moved.  Morgan immediately began smiling and called for her nurses over and over to show them the miracle that had just happened.  Though it was basically only a twitch, Morgan could move her legs.  Aaron said, “Everyone kept on telling her she was going to get better and she didn’t believe anyone, no matter what they said to her. Then once she found out that she could start to move her toe, all of her feelings changed.  She started to become happier, and relieved, because she knew if she could move her toe, she can move the rest.”

Armed with the confidence that she was going to walk again, Morgan began to look at life through a veil of hope.  She put all of her efforts into walking.  In her physical therapy sessions, she would use machines that focused on her legs rather than her arms.  She worked every day and she worked hard.  She could move her legs now while sitting or lying down.  But still she was determined to walk again, so she kept working.

Morgan riding a skateboard at physical therapy.

After months of physical therapy, Morgan could walk.  She had to use a walker and couldn’t stay standing for very long, but she could walk.  It was truly a miracle.  Finally, Morgan was going home.  She continues her physical therapy in Rockford and gets stronger and stronger every day.  Morgan was able to walk for longer periods of time with the walker, then she could slowly do stairs, then she was able to walk with a cane for short bursts of time.  Finally, Morgan was strong enough to return her wheelchair.  Though she still cannot feel anything from the chest down, Morgan can now run for short periods of time.  Just yesterday Morgan posted a video of herself riding a bike and the caption said this: “With Aaron Pagles help, today is the first day I rode a bike since the surgery!!!! I can drive, ride a bike, and I can jog!!!! You never really understand how important the things that we do every day are until you can’t do them…”

Morgan’s new tattoo that reminds her how strong she is.

Throughout this experience, which would make other people simply give up, Morgan has remained extremely positive. One of her best friends Maddie said, “She’s made it so far and she’s had a few setbacks but she got through it all.  She overcomes new obstacles every day.”  Thanks to the help of the community, Morgan’s medical bills have been completely paid off.  She is currently taking online classes for Rock Valley and hopes to return to the campus very soon to finish her associates degree.  “Even though this experience has been really hard and I still have a lot of work to do, I know that it has taught me a lot,” said Morgan, “You really don’t realize what you have until it’s gone.”  Morgan is enjoying life and encouraging others to do the same by sharing her story and her beautiful smile.

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