When MacKenzie Felmet started running on the treadmill Feb. 5, tears streamed down her face as the wave of fear coursing through her body quickly transformed into relief.
It had been nearly three months since the Nease cross country and track runner had suffered serious debilitating injuries due to a life-threatening car accident, and she finally was able to return to one of the activities she loves most.
“To see her running again was maybe the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” her father Brandon Felmet, said. “I don’t think she always sees how miraculous she is and how special she is and how she inspires other people.”
More than five months after the accident, the Nease senior now runs every day and is soon to be a recipient of an American Youth Character Award from the St. Johns County School District. But to get to this point, the girl known by her doctors as “Miracle Mack” had to run a very different kind of race – a race for her life.
On Nov. 7, 2016, MacKenzie’s life turned upside down in a flash.
As she and her younger sister, Sydney, were leaving Nease, MacKenzie attempted to cross the notoriously dangerous intersection of Ray Road and U.S. 1 when an oncoming Hyundai Santa Fe T-boned her Toyota Corolla, sending the Felmets across the southbound lane of the highway and into a ditch.
“‘Oh, my god’ is the best way I can put it,” the girls’ father recalled. “I can’t believe this happened. I just can’t believe that my girls are hurt.’”
The sisters were airlifted to area hospitals in critical condition, with MacKenzie taken to Orange Park Medical Center and Sydney transported to UF Health Shands Hospital. While Sydney suffered a concussion and a bad bump on her head, MacKenzie’s injuries included a broken hip, broken jaw, an orbital fracture beneath her left eye, temporary internal bleeding and brain damage that led to paralysis in the left side of her body for more than two weeks.
With no recollection of the accident, MacKenzie said she first remembers waking up in a hospital bed the next day, with nurses swarming around the room. This must be a dream, she recalled.
MacKenzie’s doctors were initially unable to establish an exact timeframe for her recovery. With so much uncertainty surrounding the brain injury, the family was told her recovery could take anywhere from six months to a year to possibly several years.
But MacKenzie proved expectations wrong.
“It was amazing in her rehab,” her father said. “She just worked so hard to try to get better, to get back to running, to get back to all the things she loves to do.”
MacKenzie recovered from her injuries in half the time that was expected and returned to Nease in late January, prompting her doctors to name her “Miracle Mack.” Her rehabilitation consisted of in-patient, daily and then weekly therapy with Brooks Rehabilitation, where she worked on muscle strength and balance while also participating in cognitive therapy.
Melanie Cohen, a physical therapist at Brooks Rehabilitation Pediatric Center of St. Augustine who worked with MacKenzie two days a week in her last stage of rehab, initially expected her plan of care to take 16 weeks. Cohen discharged her, however, after six to eight weeks, attributing MacKenzie’s quick recovery to her motivation, discipline and positive outlook on life.
MacKenzie ended therapy roughly two months ago. After a month in a wheelchair, several weeks with crutches and a walker and lots of patience, she now runs four to five miles each day, which she said is a symbol of her strength and perseverance.
Observed Nease track coach Ted DeVos, “At this point, you have to ask what challenge can she not overcome?”
On April 27, MacKenzie will be recognized for her exemplary character at the American Youth Character Awards (AYCA) Banquet. Accompanying her will be Nease English teacher Julie Pantano, MacKenzie’s mentor in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.
“I’m very happy that we have a good conclusion to what was a horrible tragedy,” Pantano said. “I’m not surprised to see how well she’s done because that’s always been her way. This girl has grit like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
Within the next few months, “Miracle Mack” will undergo surgery on her eye to repair the damage from the accident. The timing, she said, is perfect because she’ll be able to go to University of Florida on time in the fall, where she plans to study political science and pursue a career in law so she can help people persevere through adversity like what she faced.
She also plans to do plenty of running throughout Gainesville.
“I’m given the chance to get through this,” she said, “and then right as I’m pretty much fully healed I have the chance to go live and start a new life and start fresh and leave all this behind, which is wonderful to do.”