This story contains personal letters to and from Ariel Dempsey and her family and friends. They are intended to show the emotions and thoughts of the story as it took place.
First-year student in MSU’s College of Human Medicine Ariel Dempsey was enjoying a swing dancing session with her younger brother, Jordan Dempsey, in January 2015 when her nightmare began.
Ariel’s hand slipped from her brother’s while attempting a flip. Her head and neck led the six-foot-fall.
After the fall, she was rushed to the emergency room in Grand Rapids.
While she was a student at University of Michigan, she ran track and field and cross country, but her spinal cord injury caused her to pause her active lifestyle.
Upon being released from the hospital, it was believed Ariel suffered a concussion. However, the injury suffered during swing dancing was only the beginning.
In the dark
Ariel was high above the Atlantic Ocean, en route to London as she was going to study theology at University of Oxford, when she suffered what she described as a “neurogenic shock.” Her body was struggling to get air, so deprived of oxygen she was turning blue.
“In the (intensive care unit) we have seen drowning victims that haven’t had their fingernails fall out,” Ariel’s mother Karen Dempsey, who is a physician, said. “She had several times where she should have died.”
Once the plane landed, Ariel was rushed to the hospital. How she survived, she said, was by God’s grace. Upon arrival, she fell into a coma for six days.
Karen received a call from one of Ariel’s professors at the University of Oxford, and he told her it didn’t look good. Karen booked the next flight to England.
I couldn’t even talk to him (Ariel’s professor) on the phone, I was crying so hard,” Karen said. “At first we didn’t know what was going on and how serious it was, we thought perhaps it might have been just a concussion.”
Ariel was diagnosed with a cavernoma in her cerebellum. Essentially, a clot of blood vessels in the back of her brain were bleeding.
When she came to, the doctors gave Ariel the news.
“They (the doctors) said I was going to deteriorate down into a vegetable and die,” Ariel said.
The 24-year-old was bedridden and in the dark, as light would cause further agony because of the additional stimuli the brain would have to interpret.
“I really had to turn my trust over to God for everything that was going on,” Ariel said. “I was stuck in bed in the dark, I have never been so physically miserable in my life.”
Her brother, Jordan Dempsey, had just left to return to dental school at Hope College in Holland, Mich. After not hearing from Ariel for a week, Jordan went home to visit his family.
“I asked, ‘Hey, how is Ariel doing?’ and then they dropped it on me,” Jordan said. “I was pretty nervous because she is now in a different country and is going through it alone.”
Ariel was given only a 50 percent chance of being alive after one year. For the next four weeks, she was unable to move. She couldn’t run and ride bicycles like she used to. All she could do was put her trust in God.
“We felt trapped,” Karen said. “It was like sitting on a train track and waiting for a train to come. In their mind they (the English doctors) were ready just to say, ‘I don’t think she will ever be able to take care of herself again.’”
Karen said she was frustrated at the speed of her daughter’s care. She said the effort and compassion from the doctors in England were great, however because of the National Health Service, Ariel’s ability to receive treatment was very slow. Karen said it took two months for Ariel to receive her emergency MRI, something that could be done within 30 minutes.
It wasn’t the compassion and caring — she was just one number in a large system,” Karen said.
Ariel was devoted in her religion. As a devout Christian, she still read the Quran and the Hadith. While going through her agony, she would pray every day.
Ariel said she learned not to fear death when her close friend underwent a medical tragedy of her own. Joana McKeoun, Ariel’s former roommate, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. McKeoun attended Hopevale Church in Saginaw, Mich. and ran cross country and track and field at Heritage High School. She also volunteered with Make-A-Wish Foundation and Relay For Life.
After a five-year battle with brain cancer, McKeoun died on Oct. 4, 2013.
It was very very tough,” Ariel said. “In a weird way, taking care of her and being able to walk with her in her last moments of life was one of the biggest honors of my life. ... Watching her strength gave me a vision for strength and beauty when I faced my own suffering.”
As the winter turned into spring, Ariel showed signs of recovery. She had started to move and took it upon herself to get her body’s neural pathways back on track. She started tai chi, which she had never done before, and began to practice yoga and rock climbing.
Ariel’s next threshold was to get back onto a plane, her first flight since her near-death experience, and travel back to her hometown of Grand Rapids to continue her rehabilitation.
“She knew the word but couldn’t say the word, she couldn’t read,” Karen said. “Like cat, she knew it was a word but couldn’t remember what it was.”
With the damage Ariel suffered, she had to continue to rebuild her neural bridges of her brain. This past June she saw doctors in Grand Rapids for a second opinion and a checkup on her head.
The doctors gave Ariel a much more hopeful prognosis. The reaction on the plane might have been from the spinal cord injury she received from her swing dancing fall. But the possibility of her brain bleeding again will always be on Ariel’s mind.
“Even though she was not expected or guaranteed to get back any or all of her function back … it’s a gift,” Karen said.
Ariel said the experience has made her grateful for her life.
“I am really grateful to be able to do the things I can do, because for a long time I thought I was going to be a complete vegetable,” Ariel said. “There is always something that reminds me of what happened.”
The next steps
Ariel slowly got stronger. Just eight months after her collapse on the plane, Ariel was ready to begin medical school at MSU.
“By some grace I was able to start medical school in the fall,” Ariel said. “I am still not 100 percent well, I take naps in the middle of the school day with a sleeping bag on the floor, I wear sunglasses in bright rooms, I always feel a bit sick and sometimes my body just shuts down.”
Ariel is continuing to get better. She has started to play soccer, something she played while at University of Oxford, and she is one of the top students in her class, Karen said.
"Whether you’re 20 or 80, you’re like a vapor, life is so short,” Karen said.
“I am at a place where time will tell,” Ariel said. “Yes, I live with the uncertainty. Yes, I could die any day, but so could anyone. No one knows when they are going to die. No matter what happens, God is Sovereign. As I look ahead at the uncertainty, I remind myself of a prayer from St. Francis de Sales.”
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