Megan Absten was just 14 years old when her life changed dramatically.
She lost her left arm after an all-terrain vehicle overturned.
But instead of succumbing to the pain, anger and loneliness she felt, the 20-year-old University of Puget Sound freshman from Burlington set herself on a new path.
She enrolled at Annie Wright Schools with the help of a scholarship, where she credits the school’s rigor and discipline with helping her transform into a scholar.
Outside the classroom, she pushed herself to excel at running, and in 2013 she earned two silver medals at the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships.
This week, Absten will host a free Tacoma screening of a documentary film, “Endless Abilities.” It tells the stories of four friends who set off on a cross-country road trip in search of disabled athletes who share their stories.
Absten is not in the film. But she can relate.
She talked to The News Tribune about her story and what she hopes the film will accomplish for all physically challenged athletes.
Q: Have you seen the film?
A: I’ve only seen the trailer. But even in watching that, there were so many different aspects that totally resonated with me. And there a lot of things I feel I could add. I’m excited to be able to watch the film with the audience and react with them.
I think this film is going to show people how capable (disabled athletes) are. It is a piece of who they are. It adds to their character. It is part of their story.
Everybody has their story. Ours is just external, and very obvious.
Q: Can you talk about your accident?
A: It was Dec. 28, 2009, three days after Christmas. I was 14.
Me and my three girlfriends called my boyfriend and two other guys. My friend’s dad had this shop, and we were going to ride quads (a type of ATV). But the quads were blocked in by a truck. So we said, “Let’s just ride the RZRs.”
They are similar to a dune buggy, with a roll cage.
I had been riding with my friend, and he asked if I wanted to drive. I got in the driver’s seat, and I was a little excited.
I had been used to driving a quad. But the handling is much different on an RZR.
We were in a rock quarry. I kind of started to swerve back and forth. The RZR started to fishtail to the left.
I panicked and over-corrected my turn. Two tires caught on the gravel and caused it to tip over on its side.
As I was falling, I stuck my arm out as a reaction. The rollbar came down and landed on my shoulder. My left arm was mangled, but still attached to me.
When I got to Harborview (in Seattle), they told me it was 98 percent amputated. I had no idea, partly because my body had gone into shock.
I remember one paramedic saying, “We don’t have time to stabilize. Let’s go.”
Q: Did you lose a lot of blood?
A: When my shoulder dislocated, it pinched the brachial artery completely shut. So I actually did not bleed at all.
Paramedics lifted me into an ambulance. They had actually brought the coroner, because they thought I was going to be dead. He goes, “Where’s the blood? I don’t see any blood.”
We drove to Skagit Valley Hospital (in Mount Vernon) and I was airlifted to Harborview.
Q: What happened at Harborview?
A: I had 40 hours of surgery. They reattached my arm. They grafted skin off my back and took muscle from my side and back. They got a pulse in my arm.
But it was sucking the life out of me. My artery ruptured two times. I ended up flatlining when they brought me into the OR after I ruptured.
Q: What happened next?
A: They brought my parents in and had a discussion about either continuing to save my arm or amputating.
On Jan. 6, they came into my room and said, “It’s going to be a long road to recovery. We are going to have to do lots more surgeries and even then, there is still a chance it will be unsuccessful and we will have to amputate.”
At that point, it wasn’t even a hard decision to make. I was in such pain and discomfort. It’s crazy to look at your hand and try so hard to squeeze it or move it, and then have it not move at all.
I was like, “Let’s do this. Get this thing off of me.”
Q: Talk about how you felt after your arm was finally amputated.
A: That was Jan. 7, 2010. The week after the amputation might have been the hardest week.
One thing I wholeheartedly believe is that you don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.
I have friends who tell me, “I just don’t think I could do what you do. I don’t think I could handle having one arm.”
If I had two arms and looked at me, I would think the same thing. But you just learn. It is so amazing how the body adapts.
Q: How did you get over that first week?
A: They started me with emotional and mental therapy very soon after. It was like a couple of sessions, and I was like, “No, no, no.”
I did not want help from any medical professional. I remember nothing frustrated me more than having someone with two arms — and this might have been my 14-year-old angsty self — telling me how to do things with one arm.
I thought, “I can find better ways to do this.”
Q: When were you discharged from the hospital?
A: I was discharged the 18th of January.
When I got back to Burlington, I tried to jump right back on the horse and pick up where I’d left off.
I didn’t have a thorough understanding of what had happened to me and what the repercussions were going to be. The fact that it was permanent — it took a while for that to set in.
Q: The community rallied around you and your family, offering help and hosting fundraisers.
A: When I got back to school (at the beginning of March), everyone was wearing these blue-and-green wristbands that said Miraculous Megan.
But after the community support kind of dissipated, and everyone went back to their everyday lives, it hit me hard. At 14, you’re going through all those hormonal things in the first place, and to have something like this on top of it — all those things combined led me to feel very alone.
The anger part happened next.
Q: Were kids mean to you?
A: No. Everyone wanted to be my friend. I became very closed off, and I felt like nobody understood me. I forced myself to deal with it on my own. I didn’t want my family to think I was sad or hurting, because I saw them hurting and I didn’t want to inflate that at all.
Q: How was your schoolwork?
A: I didn’t do very well in school because I was dealing with all my grief.
Then it occurred to me that not going to school and behaving the way I was wasn’t hurting anyone but myself.
I had always wanted to do something big, ever since I was really young.
But then I thought, “I lost my arm, so now this isn’t going to be possible. I’m not going to be able to help anyone. I’m in the helpless category now.”
I needed to get out of Burlington. I needed a fresh start.
Q: So that’s how you found Annie Wright? Did you get a scholarship? How was your first year?
A: I did. My first year at Annie Wright, I lived in the dorms there. It was probably the best decision I ever made. Going there completely changed my life.
We had been through so much trauma as a family that I had lost the discipline at home.
Having that structure, and the discipline of living in the dorms — check-in every night at 6 p.m., required study hall, lights off at 12 — it was intense. But I think that’s exactly what I needed. I needed to learn how to be a student.
Q: I know you were a wrestler at Burlington High School and had also run track since sixth grade. How did you get back into sports?
A: (Back home) a woman named Laurie Saunders converted a barn into a gym and called it “Fitness on the Farm.” She heard about my accident and offered to train me for free. She helped me basically get reacquainted with my body. She motivated me; she was like a mom to me.
After I lost my arm, I was able to push my body and actually see what my body was capable of, more than I had ever done with two arms.
Q: Did the physical discipline pay off in the classroom?
A: I was struggling my first year at Annie Wright. I had a teacher use an analogy. He told me, “When you’re doing homework problems, think of it like you’re in the gym. Think of it as one more rep, one more set, and do five more problems.”
I was like, “I can do that. I can do five more pushups. I can do five more stats problems.”
Q: You made captain of the Annie Wright soccer team and started running track there. Tell us how you made the leap to the Paralympics.
A: My junior year, I was having back problems. My sprints coach at Annie Wright knew of a Paralympics coach in Olympia. She called him to see if he knew of any exercises that would fix that and realign my body.
He asked about my times. He wanted to watch me run. He got so excited, and wanted me to move and finish high school in Tumwater.
But I didn’t feel right not finishing my commitment to Annie Wright. They had done so much for me.
Q: When did you get to the Paralympics?
A: In 2013, I entered myself in the national Paralympics meet in San Antonio. My coach told me that we were just going to feel it out and see if this was something I wanted to pursue.
I ran the 100-meter and 200-meter and got silver in both. I wrote it off, thinking I was not going to make the world team.
A week later, I got home and had an email from the U.S. Olympic Committee saying, “Here’s your itinerary. We are sending you all your gear.”
I got a suitcase, with the Olympic uniform. It was like Christmas.
Q: Talk about competing at the international Paralympics in France in 2013.
A: I had one race, the 100. Mentally, I was not prepared for that competition. I didn’t end up getting on the medal stand. I made a lot of rookie mistakes.
But just the experience itself was a huge learning experience for me. And also a huge motivator.
I know I can come back. And I can win.
Q: What are your goals this year?
A: I had to write off my collegiate season because of sickness. But I’m back for Paralympic season. We run the whole summer. In June, I have a national meet in Pennsylvania. If I qualify there, I get to go to the Parapan American Games in Toronto in August.
Q: You make everything sound easy, and I know it can’t be. Are there times when you get down?
A: Not as often as you would think. I wake up every day like this. I often forget I have one arm, even when I’m struggling with something, when it’s taking me forever to get a sweatshirt zipped up or buckle my little cousin in his car seat.
But I’m the one who has to live in this body. If I’m confident in the way I look and what I can do with what I have, then that’s all that really matters.