After Finn's survival, hugs help family forget

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IN THE CHILL of December, Joe Finn worked up a sweat the other day with his two sons, moving a new storage shed from the spot where the deliveryman left it - an hour late - to a place closer to his Rosedale house.

Then, he ambled into the cozy house, past the Christmas tree and the fireplace, and planted a big kiss on the cheek of his youngest daughter, Megan, while he smiled the smile of a man who had everything he wanted right in that room.

"How's my sweet pea?" asked Joe.

Megan Finn has been answering that question for months now, since her heart stopped while she was practicing with the Overlea field hockey team one morning in September.

And since she was taken off a ventilator Oct. 11, and especially since she came home 10 days later, Megan has been telling her family and friends how she feels.

And it hasn't gotten old, even when she went back to school Dec. 2.

"My classmates all asked me the same question: 'How are you feeling?' " Megan said. "They gave me hugs. They would stand in the lobby and wait until we had to go to class. They were all excited. They were more excited than me. They practically jumped on me. [One friend] jumped on me. Not really jumped on me, but she was hugging me."

It's the natural reaction when you see Megan, a petite, effervescent 16-year-old junior, to want to put your arms around her and hold onto her for dear life. Her friends do that a lot these days, taking such care of her that they remember to walk on her left side, where her defibrillator is, so they won't disturb her heart's rhythm.

That delicate beat was nearly silenced permanently on Sept. 25, when, at the beginning of practice, Megan collapsed during an episode of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an abnormality in which the heart muscle becomes too thick to function properly. It may not technically have been a heart attack, but it was close enough.

In those first few days afterward, Megan's condition was touch-and-go, and her parents, her two brothers, Joe Jr. and Danny, and other members of her extended family kept a constant vigil on the seventh floor of the medical center, never leaving her alone.

Megan remembers little if any of it, beyond the vague recollections of her family and friends coming by.

"My friends always come up to me and we were talking about the hospital the other day. They say I said the funniest things, but I don't remember," Megan said.

In fact, beyond remembering that she didn't have a second T-shirt that she usually wore to practice, Megan doesn't remember much of anything that September day after her mom dropped her and her friend, Candice Moore, off at practice around 9:30, and they walked down the hill to the field.

"It pretty much happened right after that," said Joan Finn, Megan's mother.

Joan Finn said the doctors have said that the pain medication Megan was taking pretty much sapped her memory.

"Joe and I said, 'Can we have some of that medicine, because we don't want to remember any of it either,' " said Joan Finn.

One step at a time

Megan's recovery began in fits and spurts, a couple of steps forward here, a step backward there, until she was released nearly four weeks to the day from when she was rushed in.

She made two trips back to the hospital for brief stays because of problems with her gallbladder, which developed stones. Joan Finn said doctors told her that Megan's gallbladder developed problems either because of a reaction to an intravenous drip she had while she was in the hospital or the medication she has had to take since.

Megan will have to go back to the hospital center Tuesday to have her gallbladder removed. There's a chance she will not be home by Christmas, but, under the circumstances, the Finns can live with that.

Megan has been forbidden by her doctors from doing anything that will cause her to break into a sweat, so, not only is field hockey out, but many other things, like dancing with her PlayStation game or jumping on a trampoline.

"Before, I could jump on a trampoline and run around and play DDR [the PlayStation game] as long as I wanted," Megan said. "I could play sports and dance. Now, it's very little DDR, no jumping on the trampoline."

In a whisper, Megan admits that she did jump on the trampoline once. "I got permission from Dad."

Said Joan: "Not Mom."

Slowly, life has settled into a new rhythm. Through a compromise struck with her doctor, who wanted her to stay at home until the new school semester next month, Megan goes to school half days, in the morning one day and in the afternoon the next.

Teacher and hero

Megan's English teacher is Jenna Zava, the coach who saved her life by performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation in those first few moments after her heart stopped.

The two have talked generally about that day, but not in great detail.

"I kind of know how [Megan] feels, and I kind of know how Jenna feels," said Joan Finn. "It's awkward. It's like, what do you say? 'Thank you' seems so nothing."

Though they have never met, the lives of Megan Finn and Van Brooks are tied together by coincidence and circumstance.

Roughly 12 hours after Finn collapsed on Sept. 25, Brooks, a linebacker at Loyola, fell injured during a game at Georgetown Prep in the Washington suburbs.

While Megan Finn was fighting for her life in the pediatric intensive care unit at the University of Maryland Medical System, Van Brooks was holding on in the same complex, in the Shock Trauma Unit. And because of the events of that fateful September day, neither is likely to ever play competitive sports again.

But there are differences. Van Brooks, who has been paralyzed since his head rammed into the knee of an opposing player, has been the subject of an extensive campaign to raise funds to help his parents pay his massive medical bills. Sportscasters and radio stations have lent their support, and members of the Ravens, from star linebacker Ray Lewis to coach Brian Billick, have pitched in. To date, more than $500,000 has been raised on Brooks' behalf.

Meanwhile, an October dance in the Overlea area raised a couple hundred dollars for Megan Finn. One of her father's co-workers e-mailed the Ravens for autographed pictures while Megan was unconscious. And, when Joe Finn called the team's offices asking for the autographs of Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis and Todd Heap, Megan's favorite player, a woman who answered asked Joe if he knew how many requests the team gets for autographs for sick children.

And yet, the Finns aren't bitter about how this has all shaken out, because, while they don't have a 50,000-watt radio station or a sportscaster or a popular NFL linebacker pumping up their daughter, they have their daughter at home in their arms, something they couldn't have imagined three months ago.

"We're pulling for that [Brooks] family. We know what it means to have something like this happen," said Joe Finn.

How do they do it?

There is a temptation to ask the Finns for their secret for coping, because they have cheated death twice in the past few years. Joan Finn beat breast cancer four years ago, and now Megan Finn has beaten an ailment that afflicts one or two of every 1,000 people.

"I can't take another scare," Joe Finn said to Megan. "With your mother a couple of years ago, and now you, I can't do it. The next time you guys give me a scare like that, I'm just going to go [slumping over] ... like a sack of potatoes."

Said Joan: "And then, I'll pick him up and we'll move on like we always do."

Joe and Joan Finn will be married 25 years in September. There are no guarantees, of course, but if the fates allow, they want to go on a cruise, with Megan, probably to make sure she doesn't go dancing or hopping on a trampoline while they're gone.

"You've got to remember, Megan, this is so unreal," said Joan Finn. "We all remember everything and we can't help but to be grateful that you're here, so, of course, we're going to love you and hug you and drive you crazy."

Said Megan: "I'm used to it now, but in the beginning, it was a little overwhelming. It's all my friends, so I don't care. Give me a hug."

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