Maggie Meier would cradle the beach ball in her hands and, with perfect form, shoot it through her the arms of her sister, who had formed a makeshift hoop.
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The only thing out of the ordinary? Maggie Meier was in a coma.
“I have never seen anything like it,” said Dr. William Graf, Meier’s neurologist. “The act of shooting a basketball must have been ingrained as one of Maggie’s basic instincts — her basketball shooting motion came back to her even before she was able to stand up or walk again.”
Sometimes the family would transfer her into a chair where she would shoot a ball into a mini hoop. After a few minutes of shooting, she would go back to her comatose state.
In the fall of 2008, Meier, now a senior at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kan., complained to her parents about feeling ill. When her condition worsened they rushed her to the hospital, where she had a seizure.
Doctors eventually discovered Meier was suffering from mycoplasma meningoencephalitis, a type of meningitis that caused swelling in her brain. They tried to keep her seizures under control and, a few times, had to resuscitate her.
She ended up in the hospital for 100 days. For two-and-a-half months, she was in a coma. Her doctors and family had to do everything for her, from turning her every two hours to moving her arms and legs for her so they wouldn’t stiffen.
The moments when she was awake are just tales to Meier, not memories.
“Coming back to normal, I hear stories like that, like shooting the beach ball,” she said. “I played basketball my whole life, since third grade. I had the knowledge of playing and knowing what was going on in a game.”
What Meier called “normal” was a complete restart of her life.
She had to relearn everything — how to walk, speak and read. Social cues that once came easily had disappeared. But Meier still wanted to play the game she loved.
“When we brought her home, she would get in her wheelchair and try to shoot hoops,” said Margaret Meier, her mother. “When you have a brain injury to that degree, no one can predict how far along you’ll be able to go.”
Her freshman year was completely lost after so much promise on the court — Meier was once a sharpshooter who won an AAU national title on a team coached by her father, Steve.
Eventually, when the Meiers’ insurance ran out, they sent Maggie back to school where she was still early in her recovery, still trying to walk and talk correctly.
Basketball proved therapeutic. Huskies coach David Glenn, who literally kept a chair on the bench with a “reserved for Maggie Meier” sign while she was in the hospital, worked with her.
It paid off — Meier made the JV team her sophomore year and joined the Huskies’ varsity squad the next season.
This year she was a part-time starter and on Monday was in the starting lineup as she celebrated Senior Night, the culmination of more than three years of recovery.
“When I’m out there, I don’t think about it that much,” said Meier. “I just think I’ve been here for years. But when I do think about it, it’s pretty awesome.”
Later this year, she’ll graduate and attend Benedictine College in Kansas, though basketball will take a back seat.
Inspired by her experience, Meier wants to earn a degree in special education. “Seeing what I was like, it helped me appreciate what other people go through every day,” she said.
Though she may only play intramural hoops at Benedictine, Meier’s story has inspired at least one collegiate coach.
After the Kansas City Star reported Meier’s story, Graf, whose daughter plays for Yale, said he spoke to the Bulldogs’ head coach Chris Gobrecht about Meier’s incredible comeback.
“[She] said, ‘Anyone who has gone through that . . . can be on my team,’” Meier said. “That’s pretty cool.”
What is mycoplasma meningoencephalitis?
Mycoplasma, a type of bacteria, can cause minor health problems such as walking pneumonia. But according to Dr. William Graf, other strains of the bacteria can cause much bigger health problems, as it did with Maggie Meier.
Those strains can include meningitis and encephalitis, which cause inflammation in the brain.
Ultimately, the damage in Meier’s brain was significant but temporary and reversible. Though not all cases can develop as much as Meier’s did, they can be life-threatening.