Kansas Teen Shot Hoops in Meningitis-Induced Coma

High school basketball star Maggie Meier had brain swelling from meningitis.

ByABC News
February 23, 2012, 10:11 AM

Feb. 23, 2012— -- Teen basketball star Maggie Meier had perfect free-throw form, even when she was in a coma.

In the fall of her freshman year of high school, Meier got meningitis, a bacterial infection that spurred swelling in her brain and sparked terrifying seizures in the healthy student athlete.

"I'll never forget it," said Meier's mom, Margaret, a neonatal intensive care unit nurse. "Her eyes rolled back, and I knew what was happening. It was terrifying."

That seizure, the first of 20 that night, marked the start of a 100-day hospital stay for then-14-year-old Meier of Overland Park, Kan., most of which she spent in a coma.

"Seeing her every day, not getting any better, it was horrible," Margaret said, detailing the tubes that delivered nourishment and life-saving medications to her unresponsive daughter. "But she would do things that would make us know she was still there."

Although Meier couldn't talk or walk in her trancelike state, she could still shoot hoops.

"She would wake up for two to five minutes and shoot the ball, then be completely out of it again," said Margaret, describing the perfect swish of a beach ball through the makeshift net of Meier's sister's arms. "That's when we knew we were going to get her back, and get her back all the way."

Meier's neurologist, Dr. William Graf, said he'd never seen anything like it.

"It was just incredible," said Graf, now a professor of pediatrics and neurology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "She couldn't walk or eat, had no basic functions, but still had this perfect shooting motion. It was engrained."

The severe swelling in Meier's brain had disrupted the connections between nerve cells, and there was no guarantee those connections would ever be restored.

When Meier's immune system cleared the infection and she finally woke up, she had to relearn everything -- how to walk, talk, read and behave -- from scratch.

"She was very childlike," said Margaret Meier, describing the tendency of kids to "just say whatever they want" without inhibition. "All those social things you learn over years and years, she had to relearn. And she had some aggressive behaviors, especially towards me."

Over two months of intensive rehab, and with the unwavering support of her parents and five siblings, Meier slowly came back.

"It wasn't easy," her mom said, recalling the violent outbursts and the need to install special locks on all the doors. "It was months and months of intense work."

Five months after she was hospitalized, Meier returned to Blue Valley Northwest High School, where she got one-on-one instruction from a special education teacher as well as physical and occupational therapy. Her spot on the basketball team bench was lovingly marked with a sign and her teammates wore beads on their shoes with her initials.

"Basketball was hugely important in her recovery," said Margaret. "It's been such a major part of her life since third grade, and she always wanted to get back to it."

And in her sophomore year, she did, earning a spot on the Huskies' junior varsity team. The next season, Meier joined the varsity squad. And on Monday, her high school's Senior Night, the 17-year-old was part of the starting lineup.

"To see where she is now, after what she's been through," said Margaret, voice shaking, "she's just such a great kid."

In the fall, Meier will start college at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where she plans to major in nursing or special education. Her mom can't imagine a better fit. "She can really relate," she said.

Whether Meier will play college ball is still up in the air, given her undoubtedly hectic class schedule and busy social life. But her mom is confident she can do anything she puts her mind to.

"If she wants to play ball, we'll be behind her 100 percent," she said. "We're so proud of her."