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By Linda Thomas
Hometown Weekly Correspondent
Even at the tender age of five, Maddie Walter was unusually fast on her feet. She’d run up and down the field kicking the ball in front of her, zigzagging — leaving the other players in her dust.
“That boy keeps taking the ball from me,” her mother, Linda, remembers her saying.
She’d just take the ball back and go head to head with him and the other players on the soccer field.
She played regularly against boys, and their level of aggression roused her early athletic prowess. As she got older, she was dispirited when the boys and girls stopped playing together on the same soccer team, her mother recalls.
But it didn’t stop her from playing at a high level whether the game was basketball, field hockey or lacrosse.
“I wanted to win,” said Maddie, now 17.
Winning at kindergarten soccer evolved into winning at high school lacrosse.
Then came a dangerous accident — and that iron resolve faced a new challenge: the fight for life.
One Friday night in May last year, Maddie and friends were at a bonfire in a private, rocky, wooded area behind High Street. The fire and activity prompted neighbors to call police.
As police arrived, Maddie reacted by running.
In the darkness and confusion she ran to a steep and slippery path and lost her footing. She fell some 30 feet off a ledge, landing on large sharp boulders. The fall broke her pelvis and wrist, shattered bones in her face and left her with a traumatic brain injury.
Police and fire officers heard a noise that sounded like an animal struggling to breathe. The officers shone a light down the ledge and saw it was Maddie.
At the hospital, doctors said they weren't sure she'd ever walk or talk again -- or even if she'd live through the night. Tests showed no drugs or alcohol in her system. It was anticipated she’d been unconscious for nearly 45 minutes when she was found. No one had known she was missing; they'd assumed she was in a car with someone, or back home. She was in a coma for two weeks. After she opened her eyes, two more weeks passed until she felt aware of things going on around her.
“She was nearly paralyzed on her right side and not able to speak, sit up, walk, eat or drink,” her mother said. “Just to get her to respond to a command such as ‘hold up one finger’ was rare and met with cheering whenever it did happen.”
After a month in the hospital, Maddie was moved to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown — marking the beginning of her healing phase.
“The speech therapist, Lynette, worked miracles getting Maddie to respond to more and more commands, to swallow liquids and eat food,” Linda Walter said. “Eventually, Maddie was able to purposely make a small noise. That was all Lynette needed to begin working on her speech.”
Maddie wanted to be mobile; her mother said she often tried to climb out of bed and into her wheelchair. After three months at Spaulding, Maddie came home in a wheelchair.
Two weeks later, she graduated to a walker.
She insisted on going back to school. Doctors, therapists and school administrators were wary of her coming back too soon, but by the end of September, she was attending an English class.
Her next challenge was to stay alert for 50 minutes in class.
“She was not able to participate or follow much of what the teacher was saying, but she kept going to class every day she could,” her mother said.
In January, she took a pre-calculus class. A helper took notes for her, and her mother tutored her at home. She was able to get an ‘A’ on every quiz for the semester using just one modification: enlarged text.
“If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, it's that determination and willingness to work hard and achieve measurable goals you set for yourself,” said Mark Holthouse, who teaches computer science at Westwood High School and taught Maddie during her junior year.
“And that’s Maddie … that’s the core. That wasn’t touched. There was no damage there … completely and 100 percent Maddie — and still intact.”
Maddie is now focusing on relearning to walk and talk.
“I’ve already made progress — and I’m confident I’ll get better,” she said.
Maddie acknowledged she's angry she can't do the things she used to be able to do — and disheartened at losing her memory of the previous year.
“She doesn’t remember being made field hockey captain,” her mother said, “or being asked to the prom.”
But she retained her math abilities. At rehab, her mother tested her on an algebra problem (2x + 4) /2 = 5 – and her mother would ask, “what is x?” and she’d do it all in her head and answer: “3.”
She doesn't remember computer science class, but she remembers her teacher.
“They say teaching is the process of lighting a fire,” Holthouse said. “And that fire got lit with her in computer science — maybe a combination of subject and teacher.”
Maddie adapts well, Holthouse said.
“It hasn’t plateaued yet,” he said of her journey back from her accident. “She’s making good progress. There’s a pretty good indication that for someone with her kind of injury at her age — and there’s not a lot of people like that — progress continues for years. It’s not going to end.”
While others may classify her injuries as a disability, Maddie is adamant she’s on a path to recovery.
She also wants to recover lost parts of her personality -- including the ability to express emotion.
She can get mad, her mother said. But because of the frontal lobe damage she suffered, she’s never cried since the accident — and laughed only once when she rode on the bus back home from a lacrosse game when a teammate was dancing on her seat and acting silly.
It has been a rough year, but two weeks ago she was there to share and savor a state championship victory by her teammates when the Westwood lacrosse team defeated North Andover 13-7.
“She was so excited and happy to have such a great ending to a tough year,” her mother said. “She is really proud of all her teammates and how hard they worked this year.”
The team was undefeated in the regular season with Maddie on the field last year but lost in the championship after her injury. She was on the sidelines with the team for every game and participated in every practice she could.
Coach Leslie Frank spoke of Maddie’s insight into the game — helping her teammates execute well in a particular play or game play.
“We included her in our strategy discussions,” Frank said, “and she had done a lot of work with our goalies and was counted on to throw out balls in our competitive ground ball drills, shooting drills or competitive 4x4 drills.”
Frank describes Maddie as a “breath of fresh air … thoughtful and caring of her teammates, classmates and her family – and always seems to know exactly the right thing to say.
“She has a serious ‘get things done attitude,’” Frank said. “And a flip side that’s ‘chill and laid back.’”
Kaity Healey and Maddie have been friends since fourth grade and lacrosse teammates.
“Maddie was my best friend before and after (the accident), and she always will be,” Healey said. ”She inspires me because she works so hard every single day.”
The team badly wanted a state title this year — for Maddie.
“We waited so long and did it specifically for her,” Healey said, adding, "With Maddie being there and seeing us win, it was the best feeling ever for all of us.”
Once her speech improves, Maddie said she’d like to be a motivational speaker to encourage others who face physical challenges or suffer traumatic injuries.
“If they could see me after I’ve had a brain injury, they’ll think I could do anything,” she said. “I couldn’t walk or talk for months. Look at me now … I’m walking and talking with no problem.”
Maddie doesn’t want people to treat her differently. She doesn’t want them to feel their problems — such as not getting into a certain college, or just having a bad day — are diminished compared with hers.
The head of student services for the Westwood Public Schools has asked her to talk with all five third grade grammar school classes in the district about people with disabilities. Her goal is to show these kids how she wants to be treated, how challenges can be overcome and how not to judge people based on their appearance.
With the help of her English tutor, Wayne Chatterton (who taught English at Westwood High School for 31 years before retiring in 2015) Maddie was able to turn in a college essay by the end of the semester. The process was simple: He asked questions. She typed notes.
When he first worked with Maddie last November, Chatterton used the novel “Ishmael” — the novel students were reading in the class she started to attend when she returned to school in late October — as a way to assess her ability to comprehend and to help with her recovery.
Nonverbal communication is a central theme of the 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. So Chatterton selected a paragraph he thought might strike a cord.
“I blew up the font a bit and spaced the words,” he said. “I wanted to see if she could decode and if she could read with any fluency and comprehension.
“She read incredibly slowly initially. She barely showed emotion,” he noted. “But when she read she pointed with her finger at each word combining to move faster.
The line in the paragraph read:
“As this indicates, I’m a one-step-at-a-time kind of guy. An improviser.”
“It took her a long time to sound out each word,” Chatterton said, “and I thought, ‘oh, there’s no comprehension’ and she was barely decoding.”
“But when I asked what the word improviser meant, Maddie said, ‘to make it up.’
“I thought there is a lot going on with her – a lot still intact.”
Then Maddie and Chatterton tackled the last sentence of that paragraph:
“In my experience, you never really know how you’re going to handle a problem until you actually have it.’
“She looked at me,” Chatteton said, “and pointed to herself and said, ‘That’s me.’
“To me,” he said, “that is a lot of comprehension.”
In developing her college essay, they talked about her pre-accident academic and athletic abilities, her post-accident challenges, and what qualities were crucial to her recovery.
“Once she had much material to work with, we started the revising and tightening process,” Chatterton said. “Maddie read each line aloud, figured out a structure, tightened details and language, all in an effort to emphasize her drive, perseverance and positive attitude.”
Maddie graduated with her class this month. And while college may not be possible this year – it’s her goal for next year.
Her essay ends with:
“Now I can talk even though it’s sometimes not understandable. And I can walk as long as necessary.
“If I can survive falling off a cliff, I can basically survive anything.”
Editor’s Note: Linda Thomas writes for Hometown Weekly Publications, Inc. For comments and suggestions she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.