Under anesthesia when her right foot was amputated, it wasn’t until the time came to change the cast that Mariah Alexander would see just what she no longer had – in what surely would be a tense, grisly, heartbreaking moment.
“You don’t have to look,” she was told.
She took pictures with her cell phone – and sent them to her parents. It may be something of an upset that she didn’t mail them out as Christmas cards.
“More than anything,” she said, “I was excited.”
This is not an attitude easily explained, nor is the one she displayed to the man who spotted her struggling out of Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after one of her countless visits – for surgery or physical therapy or care or consultation – in the agonizing year before she all but insisted on amputation. She was wearing a basketball shirt, and the legend on the back had the man perplexed.
“Does your daughter know,” he asked her father, Dale, “that it says ‘Gimp’ on her shirt?”
She certainly did. She put it there.
“The girl,” said her mother, Kim, “doesn’t hold anything back.”
No time for that. You seize your moments and live your dreams as they come, and sometimes they come with cruel detours. This afternoon, Mariah Alexander will suit up for the North Central Indians and revel in the bedlam that is the annual Groovy Shoes game against Shadle Park at the Spokane Arena, and what will be unfathomable to her is not the impossible journey it took for her to play in it her senior year but that she could not play last year.
That was the low point. Not the accident, not the incessant pain, not the month in the hospital, not the cold choice of keeping a useless foot or have it cut off.
“I’ve been on varsity since I was a freshman,” she said, “and when I made it I thought, ‘Yes – Groovy Shoes four years in a row.’ It’s such a big game. You’re in the Arena and even though no one’s really watching you, you feel like everyone is.
“Last year, I was on the team but I didn’t feel like part of it. We’re in the locker room and our coach at the time is giving the pregame speech, and I just started crying and ran out – well, walked out really slowly. I just started bawling. I couldn’t even go out on the court for a while. It was just too much. I felt I needed to be doing something that physically I just couldn’t do.”
So she made the only choice that would allow her to do it.
On the 4th of July 2008, a Kubota carrying Mariah Alexander and too many cousins and friends on a speedy joyride out in Airway Heights tipped over. Her right leg was pinned underneath, crushing bones and shredding tendons. When she reached the emergency room at Deaconess Medical Center, it was quickly determined the injuries were too severe for treatment there, so Mariah and Kim were airlifted to Harborview.
Mariah had just one question: Would she be able to play basketball again?
“It’s been her life,” Kim said. “We have a picture of her standing on a bucket at age 5 shooting hoops. She lived and breathed it.”
Walking would be trial enough. Over the next few months, Mariah endured seven operations – bones reconstructed, muscle grafted from her left thigh, skin from her right, a fixator inserted.
“I was actually doing pretty good,” she insisted. “My parents are good, strong people, and where I was at with being happy or sad is where my family was. And since I don’t like seeing my family sad, if I thought they were I’d be like, ‘This is going to be OK, it’s going good.’ Even if I wasn’t feeling it, I was able to fake it – and faking it would actually lead to being happy with it.”
Then came the minimal gains and maddening setbacks of physical therapy, mental toll exacted on top of the physical pain. So much scar tissue had formed and the tendon damage was so severe that regaining a reasonable range of motion was simply out of the question. Dr. Douglas Smith, Harborview’s noted orthopaedic surgeon, examined Mariah and concluded that “this is what you’re going to live with for the rest of your life.”
“At that point,” she said, “I just completely shut down.”
Until he mentioned her one option: amputation.
“As soon as he said it,” she recalled, “I said, ‘Go ahead – let’s do it tomorrow.’ And that’s when my mom started crying.”
Mom, Dad and doctor wouldn’t sign off on that schedule, naturally. A 17-year-old doesn’t get to shop for a new life the way she shops for a new pair of basketball shoes. There would be family talks and counseling with the surgeon, and Mariah would begin sessions with an amputee support group to gain an understanding of what people who have lost limbs go through on a daily basis – none of which shook her resolve, though her mother was a tougher sell.
“A lot goes through your mind,” said Kim. “What if in three years they come up with this bionic foot or they can go and put the bones and tendons back in that were missing? And this had to be more than a decision based solely on whether she could play basketball again. Mariah was honest – she said that one of these days she may want to have kids and what if she had to run after them?”
Said Mariah, “What I had didn’t work for me. A prosthetic would.”
For his part, Smith listened to Mariah’s arguments and took Kim aside in the hall to tell her, “If I didn’t think she was doing it for the right reasons, I wouldn’t do it. I believe it’s the best thing.”
Not that the mere reason was going to carry the day.
“Seeing the look on Mariah’s face when she was presented with that option,” said Kim, “was seeing her come back to life. I got my daughter back.”
Mariah is honest. Whatever her long-term rationale, she admitted that the urgency was basketball.
Her foot was amputated on July 23. Six weeks in a cast followed, then a couple of more in a wheelchair before she was fitted for a walking prosthetic. It was barely days before the start of practice at NC when she strapped on one that would allow her to run.
“I was so excited to practice that first day,” she said, “and I knew I hurt myself, but I kept pushing through to the end because I wanted to say I did it – and then I went home that night and cried. My dad was so good, telling me how well I’d done, but I said, ‘You don’t understand – the girls are going to practice a second day and I’m not going to be able to.’ ”
But she would make her way back from that, too. When first-year NC coach Gabe Medrano felt she was ready, he put her in for two minutes at the end of the first Shadle game – and she was so gassed from that brief appearance that she volunteered to play in C squad games to run herself into shape. A month ago she scored her first basket in a game at Rogers – the roar from the rooting section was telltale in a 55-20 rout – and she started on Senior Night last week.
But her greatest contribution may be simply being there – an unspoken inspiration, a senior on a team with few of them, bumping and banging the youngsters in practice when they need it, making sure that a program that has experienced little success in a long time doesn’t get too giddy with a 10-7 record.
“I’m not OK with ‘wait until next year,’ ” Medrano said. “And Mariah’s like, ‘Yeah, you never know about next year.’ ”