SUMMERVILLE -- As Kayla Beczynski got ready to return to school this year, her biggest concern was what other students at Summerville High would think of her.
Kayla had been out of school since May 2009, when an all-terrain-vehicle wreck left her paralyzed and battling for her life. In the months that followed, she endured endless surgeries, therapies and evaluations as she fought her way back.
Though she has made great progress, Kayla remains in a wheelchair, unable to move her limbs or breathe on her own. She requires a full-time nurse and a portable ventilator. How would the other kids react to that? Would they stare? Would they talk?
"I missed my friends," she said. "But I was scared. I didn't know what people would think of me."
As it turned out, Kayla need not have worried. Since her return this month, she has blended in without a hitch, carrying a full load of classes and connecting with friends, old and new, in this sprawling campus that resembles a small city. Principal Roger Edwards calls her "just one of the bunch."
"It's been good," she said, cracking a smile.
In fact, most students seemed to barely notice Kayla as she guided her motorized wheelchair through the teeming hallways on a recent morning, sporting a pink dress and matching nails. The few who did stop simply offered hellos or bright words of encouragement. She smiled as she maneuvered her way to the lunchroom, controlling the chair's movements with short puffs of breath on a pneumatic straw. Nurse Noreen Charlip hustled to keep up, carrying a heavy paisley book bag with Kayla's name emblazoned in pink.
"It's just great to see the motivation she has," said her friend Steven Wright, 17. "She's just striving to do her best. She wants to be a successful person in society, just like everyone else here."
The road to this point has been far from easy. Kayla's life has been a series of challenges since the wreck in a wooded area near the Sawmill Branch Trail. She was on the back of an ATV driven by a neighbor when the vehicle plunged off a 15-foot embankment and landed in a canal.
The impact broke Kayla's neck in two places, damaged her spine and left her unable to move from the neck down. She was hospitalized for 12 weeks before returning home. Even then, she required further treatment for breathing difficulties, infections and other problems. It took months before she regained her voice.
Kayla had hoped to return to school last January, but she simply didn't have the strength, said her mother, Carrie Rhymer. Instead, she worked to keep up with her studies through homebound instruction in between road trips to Pennsylvania, Ohio and other places to receive specialized care, she said.
Kayla is still finishing up some 10th-grade requirements at home while taking 11th-grade classes at school. It's a lot of work and the long days are tiring. She has to depend on her family to help her with reading and writing down her answers to homework questions. But she's determined to press on.
"She is pretty much right on schedule," Rhymer said. "She has worked her tail off to stay right on track. She really wants to graduate with her class."
Other challenges remain as well.
Over the summer, surgery to implant a pacing device that would allow Kayla to breathe on her own did not go well. She hopes to try another procedure soon.
Despite several attempts, her mother also has been unable to find enough money to make additional improvements to their home to make it more handicapped-accessible. In particular, she wants to install a wheelchair lift that would finally allow Kayla to get to her bedroom and shower on the second floor. Since the accident, Kayla has slept in the first-floor living room.
With the lift's $24,000 cost out of reach, Kayla's family hopes they might get the attention of the ABC reality show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which is sorting through applications to transform a home in South Carolina when the weather cools. Some friends have nominated Kayla as a worthy recipient of aid, and Rhymer hopes others will back her as well by contacting the show.
It's a long shot, but Kayla's family has never been short on hope. They have kept their faith that she will walk again, trying new therapies and working to rebuild her muscles, even though doctors have said she will likely remain a quadriplegic. Then again, Kayla has already come further than those same doctors predicted.
"It might just take a long time," Rhymer said. "But we'll get there."
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.