AROUND TOWN: Former AH athlete finds new niche

·5 min read

Jul. 31—There really wasn't anything that could describe the elation University of Scranton grad student Mackenzie Machell felt when she went waterskiing for the first time.

And there was ice cream to celebrate the momentous occasion.

Just a week ago, bumped into Mackenzie's mom, Lisa, as she was carrying treats out of Manning's Ice Cream and told me about Mackenzie's day.

For most of us, summer activities like waterskiing, a round of golf, a few sets of tennis, are part of the norm. But there haven't been many normal activities since Machell was a junior at Abington Heights High School, where she played soccer and basketball until one day, she couldn't. That made last weekend's events on Chapman Lake all the more memorable.

"With my disability, I just never thought I'd be able to do that type of stuff again," Mackenzie said. "It was a cool opportunity to be able to do that. I can't really put it into words.

"It was very uplifting. Just being able to participate in that type of stuff after my diagnosis."

Days like that, where Mackenzie felt like an athlete again, have not been common since the fall of 2015 when simply running after the soccer ball became an arduous task.

"I remember it was early in soccer season and I would be running and my legs basically would give out and I would fall completely to the ground," she recalled. "I know another symptom was leg shaking.

"At that point, I was playing soccer, but it was very difficult. And at that point, I really said to my mom, I think something is wrong. This isn't normal for me to keep falling. Then it was like, not just running and playing sports, it was falling going into school and just doing normal stuff was becoming difficult."

As quickly as an appointment could be made, Mackenzie was off to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia where she saw a neurologist, who referred her back to Geisinger's main hospital in Danville, where her neurology team treated her with courses of steroids and plasmapheresis, the process where the plasma, which can contain antibodies that attack the immune system, is separated from the blood cells and replaced in a plasma exchange.

"Those treatments weren't working," Mackenzie explained. "They were just kind of irritating whatever was going on at that point. So I got moved down to CHOP and I officially started treating there."

Now her care continues at the University of Pennsylvania hospital, fighting an opponent without a name — "They're still not sure exactly what it is. It's an undiagnosed neurological disease," Mackenzie said — that is affecting her spinal cord.

"How the doctors are describing the lesions, they're like inflammation that is basically cutting off the signals my brain is trying to send out to my legs," she said. "Basically I have paralysis."

If it sounds like a dire diagnosis, it is, but the 23-year-old is challenging that outlook.

She graduated from Lock Haven University magna cum laude with a degree in psychology, and is halfway through pursuit of her master's degree in clinical rehabilitation counseling.

Her recent undertakings of waterskiing and biking helped with the long-term vision of anything's possible, not only for Mackenzie but others.

"Like I said before, when you first go through this, you're like, 'Oh, I don't think I can ever be able to do what I used to do,' " Mackenzie said. "And through this, that's definitely shown you can still be able to do anything and everything, which is really cool."

The volunteer organization I AM (Individual Abilities in Motion) organized last weekend's waterskiing event, as well as adaptive bicycle rides (learn more at their website, individualabilities.org) along the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail.

"I wish I could do it more because it's a great opportunity for me," Machell said.

The waterskiing event, with the help of Leaps of Faith Adaptive Skiers from Connecticut, also showed what's possible.

"I see the whole picture from where I am now," Mackenzie said. "From my own experiences and having my own disability, you quickly realize that society isn't made for people with disabilities. So there's a whole lot of barriers and so that's why I wanted to go into this field, just to help advocate for people with disabilities. I also feel like I have that experience to help others. I feel like I understand where they're coming from."

Where the road leads her, whether it be a career in a hospital, rehab center or somewhere else where she can help others with a spinal cord injury or acquired disability, she's not certain. However, she does know what her message is for others with disabilities.

"Never give up because I feel there's a lot of times where I just felt like giving up was just easier than trying to work through everything," she said. "I think that would be my one message because one thing that I've learned throughout all these hard times is that I think you truly discover yourself and what you're passionate about. Just keep going through the hard times and you'll get through it. And never give up."

MARTY MYERS is a Times-Tribune sports writer. His Around Town column appears on Sundays. To contact him, email mmyers@timesshamrock.com, call 570-348-9100, ext. 5437; or follow him on Twitter @mmyersTT.

MARTY MYERS is a Times-Tribune sports writer. His Around Town column appears on Sundays. To contact him, email mmyers@timesshamrock.com, call 570-348-9100, ext. 5437 or follow him on Twitter @mmyersTT.