Crime

Where are they now? Paralyzed Eatonville girl, 8, returns to school

Mazie Stahl, 7, has designated herself 8-year-old McKenzie Harris’s “BFF (best friend forever).”

She shouted on the Nelson Elementary School playground in Graham recently: “I’m running with McKenzie,” as a crowd gathered to sprint alongside her friend.

Running, like other parts of McKenzie’s school day, has changed since a Jan. 1 car crash. She was seriously injured and is now a quadriplegic.

“The kids have been really good with her,” her mother, Sara Harris, said recently. “They come up and ask questions: ‘What’s that tube for?’ I start to answer, and she says: ‘Mom, let me tell them.’”

McKenzie’s nurse runs and pushes the second grader’s wheelchair back and forth across the playground, with the throng of friends in tow.

Her caretakers and her family recently have learned that she loves to run, and that it’s important to her.

The car crash near the family’s Eatonville-area home injured McKenzie, her father, Doug Harris, her mother, her now 4-year-old brother Wyatt and two cousins. McKenzie’s injuries were the most serious.

The wreck killed the driver of the other vehicle. The Washington State Patrol said 48-year-old Glenn Fitting might have had a medical emergency that caused the head-on collision.

McKenzie returned toschool in the fall after recovering for months in the hospital and then at home for the end of first grade.

“She was anxious and excited,” Sara Harris said about the first day back. “That’s when we explained you can have more than one emotion at a time.”

McKenzie starts school about 11:30 a.m. each day. She gets dropped off by Sara’s aunt, Claudia DeArmond who moved in with the family to help out after the wreck. McKenzie calls her “Nana.”

The school day starts with recess, followed by lunch. McKenzie then has a couple hours of math; a paraeducator helps her do her assignments.Then it’s time for reading with a resource teacher.Then recess again. About 3 p.m., it’s time to go home.

After winter break, Sara Harris said McKenzie probably will add another 30 minutes to her school day, which means she’ll study science, too.

In reading class, McKenzie sometimes plays a joke on her teacher.

She uses a ventilator to breathe, which makes her voice soft, and a microphone helps her sometimes while reading aloud.

She shouts “Echo, echo, echo,” over and over to test the microphone — and tease her teacher.

That had Sara Harris, who visited for the day recently, cracking up. It took a minute for everyone to refocus on the reading test McKenzie was preparing for.

That same morning, McKenzie tried to persuade her brother Wyatt to give the family’s new puppy a ride in mom’s suitcase.

“I told him to do it,” McKenzie said with a grin. “I said to Nana: ‘Nana, where’s the puppy?’”

Not allowed, Sara Harris told her, with a laugh.

Medical bills and lack of nursing assistance are a challenge for McKenzie’s family.

Insurance only pays for 18 hours a day of nursing now, compared to the 24 hours McKenzie needs, mom said. Five nurses rotate between day and night shifts.

They monitor McKenzie’s oxygen rate, keeping eyes on the ventilator. When she moves her arm, McKenzie can accidentally pull on the tubes that help her breath.

McKenzie, like many quadriplegics, is susceptible to autonomic dysreflexia, a dangerous condition involving increased blood pressure. The nurses have to watch out for that, too.

Sometimes tough days mean rescheduling.

When McKenzie was sick for her birthday in September, her family rescheduled their visit to American Girl Place. Her new American Girl doll, Zoe, looks like McKenzie. She has a wheelchair, too.

Sara Harris is able to work from home when necessary. Both she and her husband returned to their jobs after recovering from their injuries, and both planned to go to a Christmas party at Doug Harris’ work site in Seattle.

Sara Harris was looking forward to it, but was also nervous to be away from McKenzie for the evening.

“It’s still scary,” she said. “It’s all the way in Seattle.”

Even so, Sara Harris said McKenzie has made incredible progress since the crash.

With some help, she can write and feed herself. And she has been able to hold her head up.

“Everything that she’s done is amazing,” Sara Harris said.

Doctors haven’t been able to predict how much movement McKenzie might or might not regain.

“Things could grow back,” Sara Harris said. “Things could recover.”

None of that comes up in conversation at recess.

When it was over, McKenzie’s friend Mazie bid her farewell and lined up to go back to class. “She just likes to play with me,” Mazie explained. “I just like to play with her.”

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