Portrait of Persistence

Molly Brunsman of Huntingburg, 14, huddled with her teammates in a pregame cheer at the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Junior National Invitational Tournament in Louisville on April 18. It was her first season participating in the wheelchair basketball league, and her first opportunity as someone with a disability to fully participate in a team sport.

Story by Alexandra Sondeen
Photos by Rachel Mummey

The first day of the new year at Southridge High School on Aug. 8 was semi-controlled chaos. Students scurried about catching up with friends, checking their schedules and turning in various forms.

Molly Brunsman, 14, stood among the new freshmen trying to find their classrooms and coping with the anxiety of starting high school and figuring out the daily routines.

“I’m a little nervous, I guess,” the Huntingburg teen said. “I have a few more things to do during the day than the other kids.”

Molly has had a physical disability since kindergarten. Ten days before her sixth birthday in April 2005, she suffered an injury in an accident on the farm she grew up on southeast of the city. She and her brother, Derek, now 13, were playing on a silage stack while their father, Donovan, used a skid loader to level a driveway. Molly ran over to climb a stack of tires.

“I loved jungle gyms back then and it kind of resembled a jungle gym,” she said.

But she got in the way of the skid loader.

“I remember pretty much everything except for when it actually hit me,” she said. “It’s just a big blank spot. I remember running toward (the tire stack) and then that’s when the blank starts. It ends and I’m looking at my feet between the axles.”

One of her boots became wedged beneath a tire, so Donovan had to inch the machine forward to get her out. He and Deb Brunsman, Molly’s mother, rushed her to what was then St. Joseph’s Hospital in Huntingburg.

“She whimpered a little bit,” Deb recalled. “She didn’t cry hysterically, which surprised me once I found out how extensive the injuries were.”

Because she can’t participate in many organized sports, Molly was the student manager for the volleyball, basketball and track teams throughout middle school. Here she waits for the bus that will take the track team to an away meet.

A LifeFlight helicopter took Molly to Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville. She had suffered a crushed pelvis and nerve damage from a badly bruised spinal cord.

The doctors debated whether to repair the damage surgically with metal plates and pins, but decided against it because of Molly’s age. Her growth would require additional surgeries later in life that might involve rebreaking bones, so they decided to let it heal on its own.

As a result, Molly’s pelvis is tilted. She walks with a labored, lopsided gait. The nerve damage caused drop foot, for which she wears braces. Molly also must use the bathroom and catheterize herself every few hours because of nerve damage.

Molly doesn’t remember much of her rehabilitation. She traveled to Louisville for it, graduating from a wheelchair to a walker and finally to forearm crutches in her first-grade year. She also received therapy at Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago where she still visits every six months for clinical checkups.

After doing exercises on her own during the summer, Molly receives physical therapy at school each day, doing yoga poses and other stretches to help her tight hip and thigh muscles stay flexible and to improve her range of motion. She keeps her textbooks in the classrooms and has a second set at home to avoid carrying the extra weight to and fro.

Swimming is one of Molly’s favorite physical activities because the water makes her more buoyant, which takes the pressure off her hips and allows her to move more freely.

Her classmates didn’t pay much attention to her disability, even when her fifth-grade teacher at Huntingburg Elementary School, with Molly’s permission, told the class why she frequently needed to use the bathroom.

“I really don’t think they cared about it,” Molly said. “They never said anything.”

Her first experience with being teased about her disability came in the sixth grade, when children from Huntingburg and Holland elementary schools combined at Southridge Middle School. Some of the children who weren’t used to her condition called her “crutchy” and she sometimes would arrive home angry and frustrated.

“It was mainly the boys. The girls really didn’t mind it,” Molly said.

“I think she was sad that she sometimes didn’t make friends as well as she wanted to,” Deb added.

Molly maintains a small circle of friends and gets along well with pretty much everybody. She frequently says hello to people in hallways or as they enter classrooms and pass her desk. She earns mostly A’s and B’s in school, and typically leads the class in math, her favorite subject.

She’s found friends in other students with disabilities, and ate lunch with them her first day of high school. Because of her limitations, she can’t participate in many physical extra-curricular activities, so she sings in the school choir and in the Fishhook contemporary youth band at Salem United Church of Christ in Huntingburg.

Molly carried bottles of milk to the barn to feed a pair of calves at her father’s farm in Huntingburg on July 11. She said she likes taking care of the calves because it teaches her responsibility. “Taking care of the calves, in a way, teaches me to take care of myself,” she said.

Molly did play on the basketball team in fifthgrade and briefly played in summer softball and soccer leagues — before finding she couldn’t keep up.

“I wanted to participate in sports, but I can’t really play normal sports,” she said. “So I became the manager.”

Molly kept records for the girls basketball, track and volleyball teams in middle school. Donovan drove the buses for the teams, so Molly sat behind him and greeted the players as they boarded. He sometimes joined her at the games and meets, teasing and poking her good-naturedly. She hopes to manage the tennis team this year.

At a basketball game last year, Molly met Madison Melton, a teen in a wheelchair who kept records for the South Spencer team.

“I went over and we started talking,” Molly said. “I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but she played for a wheelchair basketball team.”

In October 2012, Molly joined the Music City Thunder youth wheelchair basketball team sponsored by ABLE Youth of Nashville, Tenn. ABLE stands for “athletes building life experiences.”

Molly had found the first sport she could fully participate in.

“I’m loving it,” she said.

Molly, third from left, exploded into cheers alongside her wheelchair basketball teammates as their team rallied during a game in Louisville on April 18.

In April, the team attended the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Junior National Invitational Tournament in Louisville. Donning her No. 10 dark green jersey, Molly worked to block opponents’ wheelchairs using the wheels of the black and orange chair ABLE Youth lent her.

“Get down there, Molly!” Donovan yelled as his daughter sped down the court. “C’mon, push it!”

While still adjusting to maneuvering a wheelchair, Molly has taken to the game and is finding confidence as part of a group of children who all have disabilities like she does.

“The other players are a lot faster than me because I’m not used to being in a wheelchair,” she said. “But I like that I finally have a sport I can do and actually be a player.”

After the first two games April 18, Molly headed straight to the pool at the team’s hotel. She especially enjoys swimming, as the water takes the pressure off her hips. She had participated in the Southridge Aquatic Raider Gators swim team for a while but had no interest in swimming competitively.

“I just like being under the water,” she said. “It just relaxes me.”

Molly stretched into a yoga pose during physical therapy at Southridge Middle School on May 10.

She experienced water skiing for the first time over the summer through ABLE Youth and proudly showed off photos to church members the following Sunday. Her family is making plans for her to participate in the next wheelchair basketball season.

Molly also has found joy in horseback riding at Freedom Reins Therapeutic Riding Center in Jasper, where she’s been frequenting for three years. She has to ride bareback because a saddle will spread her hips too far. The stubborn black horse she rides, Rex, suits her.

“She’s learned persistence,” Deb said on a day earlier this month as she watched Molly work Rex in the ring. Rex was refusing to back up, but Molly insisted until he grudgingly shuffled his feet. “It’s been really good for her.”

Molly has recently learned to get on and off the horse mostly unassisted. She climbed a three-step block and jumps onto the horse to hang by her hips. She then hooked an arm around Rex’s neck and laboriously swung a leg over his hindquarters before sitting up and scooching forward into place.

After a trail ride spent laughing at Rex as he tried to take advantage of every pause to scarf grass or corn leaves, Molly reversed the process to dismount. Slightly red-faced from the effort, she hung by her hips for a moment to catch her breath before sliding off Rex’s back. Despite a jarring landing that made her back ache a bit, Molly was all smiles.

“I’d say that’s progress,” she said.

As she completed her eighth-grade year, Molly toured Southridge High School with her father, Donovan, and guidance counselor Amanda Pulley on May 17. Molly and her parents were concerned that her classrooms might be too far from each other for her to make it to classes on time.

Splitting her time between her mom’s and dad’s homes, Molly remains a typical teenager. She doesn’t wear her braces or do her stretches during the summer like she should, despite the frequent admonishments of her parents. She chases after her brother when he steals her cellphone and argues with him when he annoys her. She often has headphones on as she listens to music or plays games on her laptop computer.

Molly helps her dad on the farm by driving tractors in the field, recording cattle numbers and feeding calves. Donovan still uses the skid loader that caused her injuries as a child.

“I’m not scared of it,” she said. “I just stay out of the way of it now.”

Molly has already settled into a routine at high school and is enjoying the change of pace from middle school, which she said has so far been easier than she expected.
“I love it,” she said.

Contact Alexandra Sondeen at asondeen@dcherald.com.

After returning from a church camp in Merom, Molly was greeted by members of her congregation at Salem Church of Christ in Huntingburg on July 21. Faith has been a large part of Molly’s life.

Freedom Reins Therapeutic Riding Center instructor Jennifer Branch of Huntingburg helped Molly dismount her horse, Rex, during a riding lesson at the Jasper center June 27.

Molly walked with her mother, Deb, after finishing her riding lesson at the Freedom Reins center June 27.

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