DALLAS –– Seconds before she blacked out, Makenzie Wethington realized something was gravely wrong.
Moments before, she and her father were waiting their turn to launch their bodies one at a time from a plane hovering more than 3,500 feet above the Oklahoma soil. It was a dream she thought she'd have to wait two more years to fulfill.
But her excitement got the best of her. Months before the accident, the enterprising 16-year-old scoured the Internet and learned that the state closest to her home in Joshua allowed girls and boys her age to free-fall from airplanes high above the earth. She got to work convincing her parents to sign the waivers. Mom was skeptical; Dad gave in.
By the time that Saturday came, Makenzie was so ready to jump that she didn’t bat an eye at the man who was having a panic attack onboard the flight and would soon cede his spot to her.
“It didn’t affect me at all,” she said. “I was not scared, I was excited.”
Her father, Joe Wethington, jumped first. He then watched in horror as his daughter crashed to the ground at a speed so fast that it fractured her back, spine and ribs. The impact caused bleeding in her brain and lacerated her liver and a kidney. By the time Joe reached his daughter, she was on her back writhing side-to-side gasping for air, cows ambling nearby.
“She had such a scary look in her eyes; she couldn’t catch her breath and every time she tried to take a breath she screamed,” Joe Wethington said.
“She felt like someone was sitting on her,” said the teen’s mother, Holly Wethington.
Makenzie, with a gray brace jutting out of the neckline of a shirt her friends made in her honor, discussed the Jan. 25 accident for the first time on Thursday. Her father previously spoke of muttering, “Please don’t be Makenzie, please, please, God, don’t be Makenzie” as he watched the figure plunge through the air. Wide-eyed doctors told the media they didn’t understand how she survived.
Speaking from the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation, Makenzie illuminated some of the details of her fall and discussed the encouraging progression of her rehabilitation. She’s walking now with the help of a walker. Her physician, Seema Sikka, said she’s made it 150 feet down the hall. Pending the results of some X-Rays, she could be home within the week –– less than a month since the accident.
Wethington still struggles with her cognitive abilities. Physically, she understands rehabilitation will take time. But she’s burst into tears after being unable to process a math problem.
“It feels like third grade math and I have problems with some of it, so that’s frustrating,” she said. “I’ve gotten to points where I’ve cried doing math because it feels like I just can’t do it.”
The good news: Doctors are exceedingly hopeful Makenzie will recover from her injuries. Rehabilitation will take time, but Sikka said she’s made remarkable progress considering. She’s even staying on top of her homework.
Now, her parents say they are turning their attention toward regulations governing skydiving. The federal government has not set a minimum age requirement for the recreation. In 2012, the United States Parachute Association reported 19 fatalities out of roughly 3.1 million jumps. The Virginia-based trade group was closed Thursday because of the winter storm, preventing a spokesperson from commenting for this story.
However, many Texas skydiving companies note that first-timers are required to jump with an expert on their backs. Makenzie jumped alone. She said she realized there was a complication with the parachute mid-jump and began kicking her feet as she was taught in the safety course. It didn’t fix anything. Soon she was helpless and screaming. She blacked out before she hit the ground and woke up in a hospital.
“I think there needs to be some changes about whether a 16-year-old is prepared enough to jump out of an airplane with a parachute,” said Holly Wethington. “I do not believe under any instance Makenzie would’ve been prepared for something, anything, that happened that day.”
For now, Makenzie says she feels blessed to be alive. God gave her a second chance, she said. And it only cemented her desire to become a surgeon.
“I want to specialize in trauma so I can relate to the patients more,” she said. “I think this has just made me have a better look on life.”