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Lake Evesham girl raises money to help amputee teacher drive again after losing arms and legs

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Casey Brown's handshake was warm, but shy, as if the 10-year-old Lake Evesham girl was surprised anyone would want to shake her hand.

Anne Mekalian's handshake was more confident, but understandably colder, more of a spongy fist bump with the palm open, so that she wouldn't risk crushing the reporter's hand with seven pounds of motorized pressure.

Both of Mekalian's arms are prosthetic, and both legs too. At that, the former Cathedral of Mary Our Queen School teacher, 66, feels lucky to be alive.

And Casey, Mekalian's former student, feels fortunate to be leading an online fundraising campaign that has already raised more than $9,000 to help better the life of a beloved teacher.

They sat for an interview May 11 at Casey's family's house on Lake Avenue. Mekalian recounted how she contracted what she initially thought was "teacher's laryngitis" in March 2011.

Casey recalled how most of the 23 former third-graders in her class at Cathedral came together to organize a benefit that has drawn donations from as far away as France.

And Casey's mother, Trudy Brown said a close family friend, who is a filmmaker, is making a feature-length documentary about Casey and Mekalian.

Black hands

Mekalian was hospitalized and diagnosed with strep throat and double pneumonia, and then with sepsis, a complication from infection that ceased circulation to her arms and legs.

"I remember waking up and wondering why I had black hands," she said.

"They looked mummified," recalled her fiancé, Pete Lodgen, a retired Maryland Transportation Authority police officer.

Mekalian, then a longtime Towson resident, spent six weeks fighting for her life at St. Joseph's Hospital, half of that time in an induced coma. At one point, her heart stopped.

Mekalian's family, friends, colleagues and students were caught completely off guard.

"I was just hoping she'd stay alive," said Lodgen, 65.

The news filtered down to Mekalian's third-graders at the Cathedral school in Homeland.

"We were terrified," Casey said.

Pumped full of drugs, Mekalian barely recalls signing consent forms for doctors to amputate her arms and legs. She said her clearest memory is of the medical team asking if she wanted both arms amputated at the same time.

After rehabbing at Kernan Hospital, Mekalian moved in with Lodgen in Harford County. She's had her prosthetic limbs about 10 months and even participated in a 5k race sponsored by Kernan. She said she can feed herself and brush her teeth.

"I don't think about the walking anymore," she said.

She even drove 35 miles per hour on a four-lane road recently with the help of a driving instructor in a specially equipped car.

Even after getting her prostheses, however, there are many things Lodgen must help her do, from bathing to using a cell phone.

"You name it, I do it," Lodgen said cheerfully.

Mekalian must use a stylus for the cell phone, and usually gives out her land line phone number, because by the time she fumbles for the ringing cell phone and answers it, "It's stopped ringing."

She still has trouble holding anything with her hands, which have small motors that allow them to open and close and to rotate. And she has to avoid newsprint, tomato sauce and other things that can easily stain her arms.

She sometimes doesn't know her own strength and once crunched the screen of her laptop computer picking it up. Drinking cups and handshakes are still a challenge.

"I'm the bionic woman," she said, referring to the hit TV show of the 1970s. "I don't want to hurt anybody."

Driving Mrs. M

When Casey heard about Mekalian's illness, "I was devastated. It kind of felt like, she's in the emergency room, she may never be coming back."

As Mekalian recovered, Casey was determined to help. At first, she and her parents, Trudy and Bev Brown, discussed getting Mekalian a guide dog.

But then they heard about http://www.givingforward.com, an online "crowd funding" site that specializes in raising money for people with medical problems.

And her father, Bev Brown pointed out that Mekalian had talked about wanting to drive and someday teach again.

"My dad said, 'She wants a car, not a guide dog,'" Casey explained.

Trudy Brown agreed, saying, "What (Mekalian) misses most is her independence. She can't just get up and go."

Casey liked the concept of "crowd funding," in which people pool money and resources on the Internet to fund projects and causes of their choosing.

"I thought that would be great for Mrs. Mekalian and we can make a lot of money," Casey said.

Casey and her classmates started a page on givingforward.com dedicated to raising money for Mekalian. Their goal in the three-month campaign, called "Driving Mrs. M," is to raise $52,000 to help their former teacher outfit her car with adaptive technology that will allow her to drive again, and to pay for driving lessons. The students also have a Facebook page.

The fundraising campaign is only about two weeks old, and combined with private donations, has already received $9,000 in pledges. Any additional money raised after outfitting Mekalian's yellow convertible — which could cost $10,000 to $20,0000 — and paying for lessons at $100 per lesson, will be used to help pay for medical bills not covered by insurance, Trudy Brown said.

The website address is http://www.givingforward.com/drvingmrsM. The page for Mekalian includes a video shot by family friend Connie Bottinelli, a professional filmmaker. Casey has a major speaking part in the video, in which she explains, "Our teacher, Mrs. Mekalian had a disease that caused her to lose both her arms and legs."

The students also made Mekalian a quilt with messages on each patch that say, "I love you ... I miss you ... Get well soon."

A teacher's dream

Trudy Brown, who works for a venture capital firm, said the fundraising effort is good for the students, because, "It will empower these kids to know that they can make a difference."

And Lodgen said the money will make a difference because the couple couldn't afford to retrofit the car on their own.

Bottinelli is making a difference too. She is bringing the story of Casey and her teacher to a wider audience, by making a documentary, Trudy Brown said.

Mekalian, a 20-year teacher at the Cathedral school, is now on long-term disability, but is beginning to dream about returning to the school to teach again, if she can figure out a way to physically grade students' homework.

"It's a goal," she said. "I'm not sure how realistic it is, but it's definitely a goal."

All the attention is "amazing, really," Mekalian said.

But she insisted, "The real story is not about me. It's about those 9- and 10-year-olds, who are spending all this energy to show their love for somebody."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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