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Getting her life back on course
Mekenna Mossman had 18 surgeries when her leg became infected after she was injured during a cross-country run in Redmond
Mekenna Mossman rolls up her right pant leg and points at the spot near her knee cap where the injury occurred.
However, the small bandage doesn’t even begin to tell her harrowing story. After looking up with a slight smile, Mossman, 15, then runs her hand along part of the scar that begins at her knee cap and continues up to her hip.
What started as a deep puncture the Redmond High School sophomore cross-country runner suffered after falling on the Hartman Park trail during a pre-season training session, turned into a severe case of necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria). It could have taken her leg — or her life — if it hadn’t been treated properly, says Kristen Mossman, Mekenna’s mother.
Kristen looks at her daughter, breathes in and speaks, “I tell her whenever she looks at that scar, it needs to remind her of how strong she is and how courageous she is and how amazing she is.”
Earlier in the emotional conversation at a Redmond coffee shop on Monday evening, Mekenna said that she never thought she was in harm’s way. The athlete figured she’d be out and running with her Mustang cross-country teammates in no time.
“It’s definitely scarier now than it was then,” she said. “Then, I didn’t really accept (amputation or death) as a possibility, but now that I’m clear of it, I can kind of look back and see that it really was (extremely serious). I don’t know what it would have been like with a different outcome — I was very blessed.”
FROM HARTMAN TO CHILDREN’S
At about 11 a.m. on Saturday Aug. 18, Mekenna joined some of her cross-country teammates for their last unofficial run before the start of the season. They know the Hartman Park trail well and have run it many times since it’s their home course, but it’s a mystery to Mekenna what she tripped on and then fell on to cause her injury.
Thinking quickly, one of Mekenna’s fellow female runners wrapped her shirt around the bleeding wound and some of the male runners carried her back to their car.
Over the course of two days, Mekenna visited two local urgent-care facilities and received nine stitches and strong antibiotics, but she was in great pain, the wound was infected and she was transferred by ambulance to Seattle Children’s Hospital for further examination.
They arrived at Children’s on Sunday evening, and Mekenna had her first surgery at around 2 a.m. Monday morning. Because the flesh-eating bacteria was so severe, she had a total of 18 surgeries with four teams of surgeons (general, infectious disease, plastic and orthopedics), received 400 stitches and spent 22 nights in the hospital. During the surgeries, she lost half her blood volume, which is in the process of replenishing itself, Kristen said.
Mekenna recalls the eerie scenario of watching her wound progress from a small red dot the first night to seeing redness spreading up her leg while at Children’s.
Kristen noted that the surgeons used the analogy of a forest fire to describe the bacteria.
“The infection just absolutely comes alive in the tissue and you have to contain the borders. You have to go in, and the only way to do that is to cut the tissue and lay it open. You have to take big enough cuts around the border and take enough tissue, not be so conservative, so that way you can just keep going back and killing the fire,” Kristen said while shaking her head. She added that the antibiotics Mekenna received on Aug. 19 helped slow down the bacteria’s advancement up her leg.
Initially, surgeons kept getting behind the infection, Mekenna said, but one day they went a foot ahead of it and stopped it at her hip. If the infection would have reached her abdomen and spread to her organs, it could have caused loss of limb or life, the Mossmans said.
“Most cases of this that you read about, when they have this many surgeries, they lose a limb or they die. Just like her surgeon said, ‘You defy the odds,’” said Kristen, who praised the Children’s surgeons for their work.
“We didn’t know if we’d ever see her run again,” Kristen added. “It was hard — very hard. It’s been emotional. We were spending every ounce of energy trying to get her well.”
Mekenna provided a positive outlook on the situation from start to finish: “I kept on telling her, ‘I’m fine mom, I’m not gonna die, I’m gonna be just fine,’” she said.
RECOVERY, RUNNING AGAIN
There was a point during Mekenna’s stay at Children’s when one of her surgeons told her that he could remove her leg to stop the infection from spreading. Even then, she still believed that she was going to be up and running again soon.
Mekenna had Oct. 12 marked on her calendar as the date one of her surgeons said she could run again. She kept that date firmly entrenched in her mind — the cross-country runner wanted badly to be participating in a 4A Kingco race with her teammates.
She giggles when she recalls her first night at Children’s and what she said to someone before the first of her 18 surgeries: “I told them I wanted to be at practice that night when I was there at 2 a.m. I said practice is at 2 p.m. today, I need to be there.”
It took awhile for Mekenna to return to Redmond High School. She missed most of the first month of school, went part time for two weeks afterward and was back full time at the two-month mark. Kristen said Mekenna kept up on her schoolwork without the aid of a tutor.
Following her surgeries, Mekenna used a walker and crutches to get around, and that’s when Kristen realized, “It’s just a different life, and you just don’t understand until you live it. It’s not what people at Redmond High School are living. I wish that everybody could see that there’s so much more to be thankful for.”
All the while, Mekenna hounded her physical therapist about when she could return to running. It wasn’t Oct. 12, but on Oct. 18 — exactly two months after she was injured — she ran the 5K junior-varsity race at the 4A Kingco championships at Lincoln Park in West Seattle.
It wasn’t a full-strength run, but Mekenna achieved her goal of making it back on the course. Mekenna’s Mustang teammates — who visited her and brought her gifts in the hospital and texted her about their running success — cheered loudly for their friend who’s not back to normal yet, but is making long strides to get there. (Mekenna has a numbness in her leg and has many follow-up appointments with her surgeons on the horizon, Kristen said.)
“I am very proud of her for battling through this whole situation and running in the JV Kingco race,” said Redmond High School cross-country coach Denis Villeneuve. “It was a very symbolic run and she overcame great odds to be able to do it. She is coming to state with us and I hope she will be an inspiration to the other girls.
“Mekenna is an outstanding runner, student and person. One of the finest I have had the privilege of working with over the past 30 years,” he added.
It was one of the hardest things she’s done, Mekenna said of running at Kingco, but it was also an amazing feeling to be participating once again in the sport she loves.
When she completed her run, she sat down by a tree to rest and Kristen rushed over to give her daughter a hug. Together, they cried.
“I couldn’t handle the finish,” said Kristen, whose husband, Mike, was on a business trip but Skyped her and watched the finish on her iPhone. “It’s a good thing I had another mom that came up and stood beside me, because when she crossed the finish line, I just broke down and I just sobbed.”
Last year, Mekenna competed on the varsity team, which finished third at state. On Saturday, she’ll travel with the team to state again to Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco. She won’t run in the meet, but she’ll cheer the team on from the sidelines.
Mekenna says she’ll be back on varsity next season. And soon, Mekenna and Kristen should be running together, as well. They’ve run two half marathons together and Kristen has run 15 marathons, including the Boston event three times.
Kristen’s had injuries that have kept her from running, but now she’s inspired to get going again.
“Now my injuries are nothing,” she said while glancing at Mekenna. “She’s made my life better. I love running more — I do.”