MHS student Mary Sundquist has had to endure a lot of pain in her young life, but with the support of family and friends, she is making great strides
More than 300 high school students walked across the stage to receive their state FFA degree at the Minnesota State Convention Monday night, but perhaps none were as proud as Marshall High School’s Mary Sundquist.
Seventeen-year-old Mary, who lives in Balaton, not only suffered the loss of her older brother, Ryan, two years ago, she also endured a mentally- and physically-challenging medical procedure that required doctors to break three of the bones in her leg in January. But through it all, she’s shown an unbelievable courage and strength, inspiring those all around her.
“The state FFA degree is the highest award an FFA member can receive in Minnesota,” Mary Sundquist said. “It’s definitely exciting. My goal the whole time (since the surgery) was to be walking by state convention to get my degree.”
It was not an easy journey to get to that point, however.
“Next to losing my brother, this experience has been the hardest thing I’ve went through,” Sundquist said. “Physically it was difficult. I couldn’t do things I wanted to. I couldn’t go places. I love driving around, and I couldn’t do that. It’s not fun just lying around. I’m glad I had Netflix, though.”
HOW IT STARTED
Sundquist had pain in her knees for the past two years or so. Both the doctors and her parents, Patty Moe and Brad Sundquist, thought it might have just been growing pains.
“My knees had been aching for a few years, but the doctors were like, ‘It’s probably growing pains,'” Mary said. “No one really thought too much of it. Then my ankles started getting affected, too, but we couldn’t find a consistency as to why. We couldn’t pinpoint it.”
An outreach visit in Marshall started the ball rolling in the quest to find answers.
“Last summer, the Shriners offered a free screening at ACMC that I took her to for very sore and swollen knees,” Moe said. “At the time, we had no health insurance, so this seemed like a good opportunity to maybe get some much needed answers.”
Sundquist said the outreach doctor had her walk down the hall. That was all he needed to make the referral to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Minneapolis.
“He said he was sending me to the Shriners,” she said. “He said it was all free and covered. It turned out that of the 20 or so people there, only me and one other person got sent to the Shriners.”
At an appointment in October, doctors discovered the cause of Mary’s pain.
“They took 11 X-rays of both my legs,” she said. “When my mom was getting coffee, my dad joked that they’ll probably have to break my legs. So when they came in and said they’d have to break both of my legs, we couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ I thought I’d just need corrective braces or something.”
While her dad was also in disbelief, Mary said her mom began interrogating the doctors, who said surgery was the only way to fix her legs.
“Within 10 minutes of examining her, the doctors discovered what was wrong and had been wrong for a very long time,” Moe said. “They said both her legs should be broken at the femur and also at the tibia and fibula. I almost threw up with this news.”
Sundquist’s parents knew she was a toe walker and liked to sit with her legs bowed out like the letter “W,” but they had no idea her femur bones were growing one way, while the other two bones in her legs were shifting the other direction, thus causing an incredible amount of strain and pain in her knees.
“My mom said ‘absolutely not’ to the surgery, but my dad said he thought I should have it,” Sundquist said. “My dad said, ‘you’re almost 18, what do you think?’ I said let’s do it if it helps me in the long run.”
Moe said the doctors told them they would do one leg at a time. The surgery was scheduled for Jan. 11 at Shriners Hospital for Children Twin Cities.
“They said the recovery time would be about three months, from surgery to walking unaided,” she said. “Dr. (Michael) Priola, a special orthopedic surgeon, performed the surgery. Mary was in the hospital for four days.”
Since the first hospital opened its doors in 1922, Shriners has been dedicated to providing pediatric orthopedic conditions and much more. And they provide that quality service regardless of whether or not a family can pay for it.
“The doctors up there were amazing,” Sundquist said. “We were definitely impressed. We were doing the math and got a statement, and it was like $45,000 for two days there. It’s crazy.”
A CHALLENGING RECOVERY
While the surgery was stressful enough, Sundquist’s recovery was anything but normal or predictable.
“Not only was Mary completely wheelchair bound for the next month, the life that was in front of her, and us, was turned upside down,” Moe said. “We only survived the first days and weeks because of our sense of humor. That definitely played a huge role. We made jokes about everything, just to get through things. The alternative would have been to cry and worry, and that just doesn’t work in our lives.”
The challenges started right away when Mary got home after surgery. But thankfully, the family had remarkable support.
“Once again, our church family and closest friends rallied around us,” Moe said. “At one point, I called our pastor and friend, Mike Nelson, and asked if he could help me get Mary into our house. He was there to meet us in the driveway, smiled and scooped Mary up like a sack of potatoes.”
Moe said she and her family appreciated every single gesture.
“I will never forget, even the little things,” she said. “People just underestimate the small things that are actually huge to others.”
Sundquist commandeered her parents’ downstairs bedroom and had to rely on their help for her basic needs.
“Mary slept in our bed, which was the only room on the first floor with bathroom privileges, for the next three months,” Moe said. “We literally had to help her those first weeks, just to get to the bathroom and shower, get dressed, you name it. She was amazingly resilient and most tolerant.”
For the first six weeks, Sundquist said she spent most of her time in bed.
“I was pretty much flat on my back most of the time,” she said. “I couldn’t roll over on my side for two-and-a-half months. There was minimal sitting in the lift chair, and I had to have my leg on a pillow at night. The boot was on 24/7.”
Sundquist said it actually took six weeks before she could even move her leg.
“The doctors had to cut the muscle by the femur to get to the bone to break it,” Sundquist said. “So I couldn’t even lift my leg. I also had no feeling in my fourth toe. I said, ‘If it’s going to be like that forever, I’m going to be salty.'”
Fortunately, the numbness dissipated after about five weeks.
“It definitely wasn’t what we were expecting,” Sundquist said.
A month after surgery, Mary got an infection and her health deteriorated very quickly.
“It started off as a UTI (urinary tract infection), but then I also got C-diff (inflammation of the colon caused by the bacteria Clostridium difficile),” she said. “You get it from taking antibiotics. It definitely wasn’t pleasant. The dehydration was so bad that I had to go by ambulance.”
About two weeks later, Sundquist returned to the ER in Marshall, feeling awful again. It turned out she also had kidney infection.
“The first time, I just curled up in a ball,” Sundquist said. “I told my dad I didn’t want to do this again. The second time, I had back pain, too.”
When Sundquist felt it coming on a third time, her parents took her to Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“They kept her for five days and assigned a special gastrointestinal doctor that wouldn’t let her leave until she had the Holy Grail of meds designed just for this type of infection (C-diff),” Moe said. “The cost was $8,800 for 40 pills. That’s $220 a pill, which is unbelievable.”
After finishing a 20-day course of medication, the entire family is “hoping and praying that this will be the end of that infection,” Moe said.
GETTING THROUGH THE TOUGH TIMES
Despite all the trials, Moe said her daughter has “been unshakable.”
“She told her doctor at the onset of the surgery that she needed to be able to walk across the stage at state convention to get her FFA degree and that she needed to be able to go to her first prom, maybe even dance,” Moe said. “He promised her that she would be able to do both. Honestly though, even with those promises and what she has had to endure, it’s amazing she could still keep those things in her sights. But she just doesn’t take no for an answer.”
She missed school the whole month of January and most of February. Before the infections set Sundquist back in her recovery, Moe said school nurses Deb Herrmann and Sheri Gross questioned whether or not Mary needed to slow down a bit.
“The school nurses were there every morning and brought Mary her meds during the day,” Moe said. “They were top notch and so encouraging. At one point, though, they told us they thought she needed to slow down. I told them good luck with that. And quite honestly, I’m glad she didn’t. She has lived the true meaning of perseverance and inner strength. She has gone from wheelchair to walker to crutches to cane, all with grace and humility.”
Sundquist said she did have some frustrations throughout her recovery, however.
“The worst was probably being recovered enough to do stuff, but still not being able to drive or hang with friends,” Sundquist said. “I wanted to do everything myself, but I couldn’t. It was really hard, especially with the wheelchair. At school, I’d have to mentally prepare just to go down the hall because it was so tiring.”
The family said the MHS staff, including the teachers and administrators, have been very supportive.
“My teachers were pretty good to me,” Sundquist said. “We tried to plan easier classes for the third quarter. I’d come to school when I could, graduating from my wheelchair to crutches at six weeks. But it was a lot of work and really tiring. I worked my way up to a cane a few weeks ago. Now, I’m walking on my own the last two weeks or so.”
Sundquist said she feels like she’s walking at about 85-90 percent.
“My pace isn’t as fast yet, so it’s hard to keep up with people,” she said. “It’s more tiring, and the stairs are challenging, too.”
Sundquist said her experience has given her a different perspective.
“I had an online class in the computer room, so they raised up the table so I could fit under it in my wheelchair,” Sundquist said. “People don’t always think about handicap stuff, like pushing open doors and other things. I totally get how challenging it is just getting around.”
Having missed church and youth group for many weeks, Sundquist is excited to get back into a routine, noting that she’s thankful for her faith.
“Going into surgery, I was like, ‘I need God,'” she said. “Once I had my surgery, I thought I could do it myself. But I realized, ‘Nope, I can’t do it alone. I’m definitely wrong there.’ I need him.”
Sundquist is also grateful that her closest friends and fellow FFA members rallied around her
“They were all really good,” she said. “A lot of the FFA boys and a couple of the girls pushed me around in my wheelchair and carried my crutches. They also slowed down their pace to walk with me. They’ve really been supportive.”
Sundquist’s FFA friends and advisers also had her back at recent FFA events.
“A couple months back, I had interviews for proficiency, state degree and regional officer,” Sundquist said. “I was hobbling along and hadn’t been to school for a week. It was a lot of work walking with a walker, and I had to catch my breath. I ended up getting carried up the stairs.”
Though she even started crying during one of her interviews, the judges were fair to her, Sundquist said.
“I was super nervous because it was a big deal,” she said. “I thought I would not get a position, but then they said I did. I wanted to jump up and down, but I couldn’t. My adviser was pretty proud, too.”
In addition to her state degree, Sundquist also received the proficiency award in sheep production. On April 10, she was sworn in as the regional treasurer.
“In FFA, they build strong relationships and they learn to work together, rather than compete,” Moe said. “I wish there was more recognition for these kids. They pour their hearts out for a good cause — we are a farming community.”
Sundquist continues doing physical therapy twice a week and plans to return to Shriners in October. With all the complications, there is not a rush to proceed with the second leg yet.
“It is recommended, but with the C-diff infections, Mary isn’t up to having her other leg done yet,” Moe said. “We told her we understood and don’t blame her, so we are putting it on the back burner for now. We had the worst leg done first, so maybe it will be enough to take the pressure off the other leg. We’ll know more when Mary has her leg rechecked in October.”
Sundquist continues to get support from her older brother and sister, Micki and Ashley. They’ve also been a source of encouragement for her parents. Moe, who lost her job while Mary was hospitalized, appreciates that.