Paul Adams wrote a nice story about USA's Mackenzie Eurich and her family turning a near fatal accident into a lesson in life...
SEBEWAING — Mackenzie Eurich is just like any other 15-year-old.
She plays sports, studies hard and lives the life of a normal teenager.
When she has her left leg covered up, nobody would ever suspect the terrible tragedy she and her family suffered when she was nearly 3-years-old.
Eurich just finished up her freshman year at Unionville-Sebewaing Area where she played basketball, volleyball and softball.
In the spring, she was called up to the varsity softball squad for its run to Battle Creek.
Because the Patriots wore their long pants during the post-season, most people were probably unaware that Eurich is missing her left leg from just below the knee.
“I have grown up with it, I’ve just adapted to it,” she said. “All my friends have grown up around me and they’re used to it.
“It’s just the same as anyone else.
“This is how I’ve grown up. I don’t think I could do it any other way.”
The fact that Eurich is alive is as surprising as the level in which she plays sports.
July 1, 1998
July 1, 1998, was supposed to be an exciting day for the Eurich family.
They were moving into their new house, unloading boxes and getting settled in.
As the evening grew late, George Eurich thought he would get the lawn mowed.
Just a few days before, like so many other fathers, he took Mackenzie for her first ride on the mower.
“That was probably the fatal moment,” said Mackenzie’s mom, Kristi Eurich.
After making one pass at the new house, George got to a point where he had to back up. Mackenzie, hearing the mower, went toward it, probably wanting to go for another ride.
In an instant it was over — Mackenzie somehow had slipped under the mower.
“I had just checked on her because I was going to start wiping down furniture to go into the house,” Kristi said. “She must have came around those.
“She wanted to get on with daddy.”
Added George: “I just heard it, then I looked down. I shut everything off and pulled her out.
“When I picked her up, her toes were missing, the heal was missing, and most of the leg was gone.”
Although horrified, Kristi recalls that everyone remained calm as their main focus was saving the life of their daughter. She said Mackenzie didn’t even cry.
“I came in to call 9-1-1 and (George) brought her into the entrance way and wrapped her leg up and applied pressure,” she said.
“I said that we have to start praying, so we said the Lord’s Prayer. I was praying that we could be a stronger family and His will would be done — and it has been.
“I never honestly, through this whole thing, ever prayed that we could save her leg. He’s always got a bigger picture.”
When the ambulance arrived, the crew was honest with the Eurichs that the leg may not be able to be saved.
“The ambulance crew was so sweet, they were trying to prepare me for it,” she said. “I said that I didn’t care about her toes, I just need to keep this part (pointing to the rest of Mackenzie).
“I sang ‘Jesus Loves Me’ the whole way. In fact, afterward one of the ambulance crew came out and gave me a song book with other Christian songs. But that’s the one we always sang during comforting moments.
“We sang it all the way there, and prayed all the way there.”
Mackenzie arrived at Bay Medical Center, but it was quickly obvious it was not equipped to handle such an injury.
After stabilizing her, she was airlifted to Ann Arbor.
The first few days at Ann Arbor were all about accessing the injury.
On July 4, the difficult decision was made to amputate. Two days later, the surgery was performed.
Less than two weeks after the accident, the Eurichs returned home.
Mackenzie showed right away she wasn’t going to let it hold her back. While in Ann Arbor, she was fitted with the first of many prosthetic legs.
Shortly after returning home, she was already on the go, a prelude to the fact that she wouldn’t let this prevent her from living a normal life.
“We were only home an hour and a half and Mackenzie was walking across the floor,” Kristi said. “Honestly, she wanted to get up and go.
“That was just another ray of hope. That’s all you want for your child is to get them to the next step. She was ready to take that. It was hard to keep her down.
“Mackenzie was using the hard cover that was protecting her leg from getting bumped and hurt to walk on. It was long enough and tight enough that she wasn’t putting any pressure on the residual limb, but there was always the fear that the stitches could be torn and that they didn’t want her doing that.
“She still used it to lean on when standing, though. It was six weeks before she started the process of being fitted for her first prosthesis and eight weeks before it was done. We had to wait for any swelling to go down and for the skin to heal from the accident before it could handle the pressure from a proper fitting prosthesis.
“It was very scary for her to take those first few steps with it on, and she actually didn’t take those steps in Ann Arbor, but back at home with her dad and I. Once she figured it out, that it was OK and wasn’t going to hurt, she was off and going again.”
Come to terms
It’s only natural to second guess the events that led up to the accident.
The Eurichs have had to deal with it, but they don’t dwell on it.
“There’s a hole in my heart that will never heal,” George said. “There’s no question that I went through the ‘why did this have to happen?’
“What could have happened did, and you just move on. It could have been so much worse.”
Added Kristi: “You have a choice to feel sorry for yourself, or a choice to figure out what you’re going to do and do it.
“There are times when she might have to do it a little bit differently, but you have a choice to either sit back and let life pass you by, or join in.
“She’s always chosen to join in.”
Because Mackenzie doesn’t remember anything about the accident, living with a prosthetic leg and overcoming the challenges of it are all she’s ever known.
“I can go out and do whatever I want to,” she said. “It may take a little time to go out and adapt, but I can pretty much do whatever I want.”
The Ertl Procedure
The years following the accident included some intense physical therapy.
Despite the injury, it was obvious Mackenzie was going to be active.
The Eurichs were informed of a surgery, called the Ertl Procedure. Its origins are from post-World War I, due to veterans who were injured.
For Mackenzie, the Ertl Procedure was performed by Dr. Jan Ertl in Sacramento, Calif., in 2002. In 2004, a second surgery was needed because of her growth.
“It takes the tibia and the fibula and grafts those bones together,” George said.
“Normally for an amputation, the bones kind of float. You try to get a socket for a prosthetic that gives you the most comfort.
“With this procedure, you get a bone graft at the bottom and it locks those bones together. You can be end-loading and weight-bearing on the end of that stump. Normally, you can’t do that.
“It’s a live organ and can support itself, instead of being a couple of sawed off bones that just get in the way.
“That’s what allows her to play sports.”
A work of art
Mackenzie isn’t shy about showing off her leg. She learned at a young age not to be ashamed or embarrassed about it.
She’s had her current leg for two years, the longest of any she’s had.
It’s painted green and has her name on it.
“When I wear shorts, people ask if it’s a cast,” she said. “I just tell them that it’s the leg I have.
“People like how I show it around instead of trying to hide it.”
One of the main people responsible for Mackenzie’s prosthetic is Jerry Vilminot, a prosthetist at Hanger Orthotics.
Vilminot and his staff have adapted Mackenzie’s prosthetic to include a bubble where the shin would be.
Because she’s a right-handed pitcher, the left leg is the plant leg. When she delivers a pitch, the bottom of the leg moves a little. The bubble in the prosthetic allows her to pitch pain free.
“They don’t give her any moving parts in it yet,” Kristi said. “In softball, where she hits and lands, if she had an ankle it would want to hit and roll.
“We’ve talked about that, and they’ve upped a little of the spring in it.”
The prosthetic is valued at around $15,000.
“It’s as much art as it is science,” George said. “They spend so much time getting the perfect fit.
“When we’ve gone to the prosthetist and had her do what she does, they just shake their heads and change what they were thinking because they don’t see people do what she is doing.”
The efforts of Ertl and Vilminot are not forgotten by Mackenzie.
“On Mackenzie’s softball shoe is written Ertl on one side and Vilminot on the other,” Kristi said. “Ertl, for her doctor that has made this possible, and Vilminot, for making the prosthetics.”
Amputee Coalition of America
Despite her upbeat attitude, there was still a time that Mackenzie felt different because there was nobody else “like her” to relate to.
That’s when Kristi found the Amputee Coalition of America.
“The Amputee Coalition of America has a camp where kids can go to see other amputees,” she said. “She could start to see she was not the only one out there.
“It was a place for them to talk about where they were at and what they liked to do.
“The camp was huge for her because it opened her eyes to see how she could help others that are in a similar situation.”
Added Mackenzie: “It took me a little period that I have to accept this, but I can do whatever I want to. It was a little hard before that. But after that, it was, ‘I can do this, I will do this.’”
The experience of going to the camp has allowed Mackenzie to talk to other amputees about coming to terms.
“It’s really cool that I can inspire other people to do stuff,” she said.
“I just usually show them what I can do, and tell them they can get through it. They just need to set their mind to it.”
Go to www.amputee-coalition.org/youth_camp for more information on the camp.
Lawn mower safety
Although it’s common for many parents to allow their children to ride along with them on a lawn mower, it’s something that the Eurich family is strongly against.
The common mentality is: “It will never happen to me.”
The Eurichs thought this too.
“The word has to get out about lawn mower safety,” Kristi said. “Just that innocent little ride can happen.
“If I see it, I will stop and tell them what happened to Mackenzie.
“It only takes that one instant. You can say that it will never happen to me... But if it does, you can’t go back.”
Maintaining her independence
Mackenzie doesn’t consider herself special. She wants to be treated just like everyone else.
However, she does have her limitations.
Although she is very active, she is limited in how far she can walk, or how long she can stand.
During a trip to New York City, Kristi had to force her daughter to ride in a wheelchair from time to time.
“We would go all day, so there was no way she could do that,” Kristi said. “To lose that independence frustrates her. But we got to see New York and that was pretty cool.”
Mackenzie also enjoys going to amusement parks. Because of her leg, she gets to go to the front of every line.
“We’ll get to ride rides multiple times — it has its perks sometimes,” she said with a smile.
Adapting to different sports
Mackenzie is active in sports nearly year-round. Even the summer is filled with softball — her favorite sport.
Each sport presents its challenges.
Volleyball involves the most jumping.
“That was kind of different to get a hold of because you have to jump that much harder to get above the net,” Mackenzie said. “I mostly have to favor my right leg to push off, so it has to be a lot stronger to pick me up.”
Mackenzie had quite the experience playing volleyball this past season. She had to make a call to her mom to tell her some interesting news.
“She called me after a volleyball game and said, ‘Mom, my prosthesis broke,’” Kristi said.
“She was serving and went up to hit the ball and it just broke. She said a woman in the stands started screaming because she thought she hurt herself.”
She was not injured, though.
In basketball, one of the hurdles is playing defense. Because the prosthetic doesn’t have a working ankle, it’s hard to turn and run backward.
“When she took basketball this year, there were times that we had to go to the coach and just ask to work on her footing,” Kristi said. “Once she gets it, she’s got it.”
Added Mackenzie: “It’s hard for me in basketball. You have to use your ankles to defend so you can move back and forth. Well, I don’t have that ankle to push off of, so I have to use my whole leg to really move back and forth.”
When she was younger, Mackenzie could be found in the dugout for the USA varsity softball team as a bat girl.
Before that, she was watching her dad play. It’s at that young age that she knew it would be her favorite sport.
After a full season of playing junior varsity, she was one of the lucky few to be called up for the varsity team’s postseason run this past spring.
But she wasn’t called up to sit on the bench. She was there to play.
Mackenzie made an immediate impact during the Division 4 district championship game when she came through with a pinch-hit home run.
“I didn’t know I actually hit the home run until I was rounding second base,” she said. “I was rounding first, so I knew I had a good hit and nobody was at second so I ran to second. I was rounding it and the shortstop was standing there looking at me.
“That was my very first homer over the fence. I haven’t done it in practice or in games at all. I turned and looked to see the whole dugout coming out.
“People told me where it went when I got in the dugout. It was a lot of fun. It was just awesome.”
That would have been enough, but she was just getting started.
In the regional championship, the Patriots were leading by one run. Mackenzie was called on to pinch-hit with two runners on.
Once again, she laced a sharp hit that drove in both runs.
A few days later in the quarterfinals, she again recorded a hit, but also got her chance to play her natural position of pitcher.
With the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, Mackenzie was looked upon to close out the contest.
“I actually felt like I was going to be sick,” she said. “With the bases loaded and two out, I just knew I needed to get that girl out. I didn’t care how.
“I just told myself, ‘You’ve done this forever, it’s just another game.’ It was very unexpected, but it was cool to be part of it.”
She got the out, and was able to celebrate USA’s sixth straight trip to Battle Creek with her teammates on the mound.
“That taught me that I can do it and things will work out,” she said.
Mackenzie’s dream has been to play in a state championship game.
On June 18, all the hard work and sacrifices paid off when she came up in the top of the seventh inning against Petersburg-Summerfield with her team down a run.
With the tying run on second, Mackenzie grounded out, moving the running to third. The runner eventually scored on a wild pitch.
The Patriots lost the game, but it gave Mackenzie a taste of playing in the title game.
“I’ve always wanted to play with USA, play in a state championship and win one,” she said. “We got to go to a state championship, so it was really cool to be part of it.
“I got to move the runner that tied the game up, so that was really cool. I had it in my mind that I’ve already done all of this, and I could just help the team again.”
If there is one limit while playing softball, it’s running.
She joked that she won’t be stealing any bases in her career.
Mackenzie has high hopes for her remaining career at USA.
She wants to be the starting pitcher and help lead the Patriots to a state title. She is also determined to play ball at the collegiate level.
Eurich isn’t just an athlete, she’s a student who sports a 3.94 grade-point average. She plans on studying to be a veterinarian.
“I have always done what I’ve set my mind to,” she said. “I have been working on getting better to at least be in the position where I can go play softball in college.”