“I’m going to live by myself,” said McKenzie King, boasting a bit. She’s earned the right to do so.
After a second, as if to clarify her statement, she added, “Without my parents.”
Like most people her age, when she graduated high school in May of last year, McKenzie was gung ho about heading off to college and the freedom it represented. She couldn’t wait to break away from the homestead and, at least as much as university life allows, put a bit of space between herself and her parents.
But that was before the stroke and the coma. That was before things changed.
“Most of the time, you go to college by yourself,” McKenzie said, and when she smiled it was hard to imagine anything had ever been wrong with her. She was sitting in the spacious living room of her family’s Fulton home, her mother, Sherree, on the couch beside her. Diamond, her father, sat across the room from them both.
“Not with your parents holding your hand,” she continued. “I think that was the toughest thing for me … Not … well …”
She trailed off in thought. Her father finished it for her.
“Just not being able to do her own thing,” he said, and she nodded in agreement.
Hurt and help
In July of last year, McKenzie was hospitalized at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis in order to have a cyst removed from the left side of her brain. Although the surgery itself was successful, she suffered a stoke afterward, forcing doctors to place her in a medicine-induced coma for months.
Doctors told the Kings that McKenzie would never walk, talk or use the right side of her body again. Looking back, it was a seemingly harsh and pessimistic outlook. But the Kings know that, unlike their daughter, most people don’t recover.
But they had faith. That’s what drove them throughout this ordeal: A belief that their daughter would not only survive, but get better.
“Never, in my mind, did I think McKenzie wasn’t [going to live],” Sherree said.
That belief was shared by thousands of other people, not just in Itawamba County, but across the country. McKenzie’s Facebook support page, updated daily by her father, garnered more than 16,000 followers; daily visitors to her hospital bedside numbered in the dozens; the family has a room’s worth of cards, letters of encouragement and gifts. If prayers were pennies, the family could have paid for the entirety of their hospital stay in change.
“The support was amazing,” Sherree said. “From friends and family, even people we didn’t know … There’s no words to express the gratitude we have for the people of Itawamba County. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
When she returned home from the hospital in August of last year, it was to the uproarious fanfare usually granted celebrities. Hundreds of friends and family members gathered to see her. They wore yellow clothes (the color was officially deemed “McKenzie’s color” when she was hospitalized) and carried signs and lavished on the girl hugs and cheers and red, tearful eyes full of relief. McKenzie’s well-being was important to them. It was personal.
“It was life-changing for us, but I also think it was life-changing for the 16,000 people who followed her story,” Sherree said.
They made a difference, Diamond added.
“I think some of [McKenzie’s recovery] is a miracle of modern medicine. But I also think the prayers had a lot to do with it,” Diamond said. “I believe that’s why she’s still walking.”
A new heart
Life for the Kings changed drastically with McKenzie’s stroke. It’s just now beginning to settle back down into something familiar, something resembling its original shape.
But not quite. All three of them know, likely McKenzie most of all, that things will never be exactly the same again. Not that it should be.
“It’s been a really tough year,” McKenzie said. “But I realize this year has made me who I am now. Things have changed for me.”
Since returning home in August of last year, McKenzie has been slowly rebuilding herself. She’s had to relearn a lot of the basics, including walking and communicating.
“Until now, I couldn’t take a shower by myself; I couldn’t really walk; I couldn’t even talk,” she said.
McKenzie suffers from aphasia, a neurological disorder that hinders her from selecting words properly in conversation.
“She comprehends everything, but still has a little trouble speaking,” Sherree explained.
McKenzie’s father elaborated a bit. It’s as if there’s a brick wall in his daughter’s mind — something thick that doesn’t allow her to select words, even if she knows them. As an example, he said McKenzie spent a brief period of time referring to her cell phone as a “biscuit.” It’s not that she didn’t know the difference between her phone and a biscuit — in fact, she didn’t even realize she was using the incorrect word at all — she just couldn’t reach the correct word.
“Once her brain knows what a word is, it can access it,” he said. But it’s that initial access — the breaching of the wall — that can be a struggle. Once the word’s reached, it’s hers.
“It’s very frustrating,” McKenzie said of her struggles with speaking. “I would know what I wanted to say but couldn’t say it.”
When McKenzie spoke of change, of the past year changing who she was, she wasn’t just speaking about her physicality. McKenzie believes her experience has changed who she is, how she sees the world and the people in it.
“I really was a hateful person,” McKenzie admitted, her parents remaining silent. “I got what I wanted, when I wanted it. I had a perfect life, I thought.”
That view has changed somewhat, she said.
“Now, I realize, why be hateful?” she asked. “You only have so many years. Why waste them hating people? I feel like I have a heart now.”
One year later
“It was all … all of it … to get me here,” McKenzie said.
She doesn’t seem bitter about her experience: About almost dying and about missing out on months of her normal life. Sometimes, a couple times out of the month she admits, she’ll feel sorry for herself. It doesn’t last.
“I can look back and realize that it could have been so much worse,” she said. “I might not be talking right now … or walking.”
After all, that’s what the doctors told her parents. She wouldn’t walk; she wouldn’t talk. She certainly wouldn’t be earning that 3.4 GPA she scored in college last year. That would be impossible.
These days, nothing seems impossible for McKenzie King. Given time and gumption, she can probably accomplish anything.
After her lost year, she’s prepared to get back on track with her life. She’s about to move away from home, off the college … a well-earned do-over.
Needless to say, she’s excited. Mostly about getting out of the house.
“These two get on my nerves so much,” McKenzie said, nodding to her parents.
Without missing a beat, her mother retorted.
“And we’re looking forward to her going away to college,” she said.
All three of them smiled in unison.