MADISON, Wis. -- A Florida teenager who plummeted 100 feet from a Wisconsin amusement park ride 17 months ago has returned to the state to promote an expansion project at the hospital that likely saved her life.
Hospital staff and others watched in awe Monday as 14-year-old Teagan Marti strode across the lobby at American Family Children's Hospital in Madison under her own power, using only a walker for support. The teen, whose spine was severely injured in the July 2010 fall in Wisconsin Dells, appeared at a news conference to promote funding for the $32 million hospital expansion.
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"This is my tomboy," her mother, Julie Marti, said. "She's my adventure kid. That's how we got into this. I'm just so happy she's come so far."
Teagan, of Parkland, Fla., convinced her family to make the trip to Extreme World after seeing the amusement park's Terminal Velocity ride on the Travel Channel's "Bert the Conquerer" series. Thrill-seekers rise about 165 feet in an elevator to the top of a tower. A dive master lowers them through a trap door and they hang suspended in a safety harness until the operator pulls a ripcord, letting them free fall about 100 feet into a safety net suspended over air bags.
But ride operator Charles Carnell inexplicably lowered Teagan through the trap door while a worker was refilling the air bags that lift the safety net into place. Without getting an all-clear signal from the ground, he pulled her ripcord and she plunged to the ground.
She landed on her back, suffering brain swelling, multiple severe spinal and pelvic fractures and intestinal lacerations. Carnell later told police he "blanked out." He ultimately pleaded no contest to second-degree reckless injury in a deal with prosecutors.
Teagan was flown by medical aircraft to American Family Children's Hospital, where doctors said she faced paralysis. Teagan's mother said the teen left the hospital in September 2010 a quadriplegic.
"Honestly, we didn't know if she would make it at all," Marti said.
But no one should count her "adventure kid" out.
Teagan and her mother quietly returned to Wisconsin last Thursday. They made a surprise appearance at a Saturday evening fundraising gala for the hospital expansion in Madison. And on Monday, the teen faced reporters at the news conference.
Hospital officials spoke about how the expansion would provide new critical care beds, a cardiac lab and a new neonatal surgery unit, but the dark-haired, brown-eyed girl from southeastern Florida stole the show without saying a word.
She fidgeted with her fingernails and looked uncomfortable with all the attention. Her mother did the talking, patiently fielding questions and describing how her daughter refused to give up.
Marti said Teagan initially spent three hours a day, five days a week in physical therapy. Slowly, she progressed enough to cut back to two hours a day, three days a week. All the pain and sweat has paid off she started walking again six months ago, her mother said.
The teen's physical therapy schedule was so brutal she didn't have time to attend school, so she has joined a virtual school and is earning top grades, her mother said. She's working at an eighth-grade level after missing a year, but is expected to catch up.
Marti said she hopes Teagan grows strong enough to physically attend high school and graduate on schedule. She's taken to throwing footballs and baseballs around and might start dabbling in archery.
"Cognitively, she is all there," her mother said. "She's such a hard worker. ... I know she's just going to continue to get better and better."
But the scars -- both physical and psychological -- from that awful July day haven't faded entirely. Teagan still carries a thick circular stoma scar at the base of her throat and her mother still thinks of the helicopter ride to the hospital whenever she hears a chopper.
Marti said she's exhausted her insurance coverage for physical therapy. The family won a settlement with Extreme World in October 2010, but Marti said she couldn't discuss the terms or amount, saying only "this didn't happen at Disney World, let's put it that way."
Extreme World was facing foreclosure the day Teagan fell. New owners took over the park last spring.