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Bringing Mickala home: Northwest Minnesota teen had broad support as she fought lung ailment for six months

BROOKS – On a pleasant September day in northern Minnesota last year, Mickala Morinville suddenly felt sick.

The usually cheery, energetic high school sophomore from Brooks had just started school at Red Lake County Central. She had played with the Lady Mustangs volleyball team. But she felt weak, light-headed. She had trouble breathing.

A doctor prescribed rest, but by the weekend the assault on her lungs had worsened. Mickala was taken to a hospital in Thief River Falls, then to the intensive care unit at Sanford Hospital in Fargo, N.D. Four days later, Mickala was airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital, part of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

That was the start of a long, desperate struggle, a fight for survival chronicled daily by Mickala’s mother in a CaringBridge journal. Calmly, sometimes fearfully but never despairingly, Judy Morinville explained how a virus of still-unknown origin had invaded Mickala’s lungs, turned them into sodden sponges and put her on life support.

On one of their first days at Sanford, Mickala seemed to be doing well and “was in good spirits after a tough day fighting for air,” her mother reported. Judy stayed with her, sleeping in her room. She was awakened by a commotion.

“Mickala wasn’t doing well,” she wrote.

“Her doctor was called, and the decision was made to intubate her (ventilation tube down her trachea to her lungs). It was very difficult to see her like this initially, but I now realize this is the best thing for her.

“We may have a very long road ahead of us.”

On Sept. 15, she wrote: “It is hour to hour right now. … For all friends and family reading this, please, please, we beg you to pray for Mickala’s recovery. We need her in our lives.”

The next day, Judy reported “with a sad but hopeful heart” that Mickala would be flown to Mayo. Judy and her husband, Scott, drove home from Fargo, repacked their bags, caught a little sleep and left at 5 a.m. for a six-hour drive to Rochester.

Mickala’s condition was critical but stable.

“Thanks again to all who are supporting Mickala in prayer,” Judy wrote at the end of Day 9. “I truly believe that it will be by the grace of God that she will make it through the most difficult challenge of her life.”

A tornado mess

One of Mickala’s doctors compared the virus ravaging her lungs to a tornado. “The damage has been done,” he explained. “Now it’s time to clean up the mess.”

That takes time. From Judy’s journal:

Day 177: “There are no words to describe what she has endured the last six months. All I can say is she is the strongest, most determined person I know. She is and will always be my hero.”

And on Day 200 or so, about a week from this Easter Sunday, Mickala hopes to say goodbye to a family of doctors, nurses, technicians and patients.

“I’m so ready to go home,” she said.

Lungs were ‘soaking wet’

At St. Mary’s, doctors specializing in infectious diseases huddled with members of the family and grilled them on where Mickala had been, who had been with her, whether she had helped clean the car recently or participated in a harvest.

The diagnosis was acute respiratory distress syndrome caused by severe pneumonia.

“Her lungs were soaking wet,” her mother said last week. “There was very little air movement. A machine kept her alive for 116 days, oxygenating her blood and doing the work of her lungs. But we’re still not sure how she got that virus that went to her lungs.”

For the next six months, Judy Morinville stayed by her daughter’s side, squeezing her hand and reassuring her, at doctors’ suggestion, when she opened her eyes. “Each time she wakes up we have to tell her where she is, that her lungs are ill, the doctors and nurses are taking good care of her and we are always at her side,” she wrote on Sept. 22, Day 8.

Day 9: “Today has been a stressful day. Mickala’s right chest tube fell out late yesterday.”

Judy went on to explain how fluid was drained from Mickala’s lungs, how a surgeon was called to place a new chest tube, that a catheter was inserted into a vein in her arm but had to be pulled and a new one inserted.

By October, Judy was better able to read her daughter’s lips, so they could “talk.” Mickala started physical therapy. A music therapist played guitar. Mickala received a rosary in the mail, one that had been blessed by Pope Benedict.

Day 18: “I feel things are finally going in the right direction for Mickala. I am bracing myself for bad news that may eventually come our way, but with God by our side we can stand strong and deal with it.”

Good, bad days

Judy and her husband, Scott, have a farm near Brooks, and Scott also drives a truck in the western North Dakota oilfields. He spent many days at the hospital, as much as a week at a time, and Mickala’s brothers visited from Grand Forks, where Steven, 22, and Thomas, 21, are students.

Another frequent visitor: boyfriend Cody Klamm, 16, of Crookston.

Day 35: “Steven and Thomas arrived late last night. Mickala gave them a smile when she saw them. Steven was able to present her with a team-autographed UND volleyball. … She mouthed, ‘That is awesome!’”

But then came one of those bad-news days that Judy feared:

Day 41: “We need a miracle.”

Mickala’s lungs were not recovering fast enough, her doctor said. There was some “urgency” because the treatment she was on could not continue indefinitely, for fear of complications.

“I am extremely saddened by this news,” Judy wrote that night, “but I will continue to keep the faith that God will save Mickala.”

Four days later, on Oct. 29, another crisis:

Day 45: “We need everyone to pray for Mickala. She has been taken down to surgery to remove a blood clot from the pericardium (sac around the heart) where she had extensive bleeding yesterday. … It is very risky but must be done to save her life.”

Knows her rosary

The family professes a deep faith, and in her online journal Judy daily thanks the people at home for their prayers and urges more.

On a day in early November, Father Chuck Huck, the family’s priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Brooks, visited Mickala and celebrated Mass in her room.

Day 53: “Scott asked Father for help to make sure we are praying the rosary correctly. Father replied he had a pamphlet in his car (but) Mickala mouthed the words, ‘Dad, I can help you with that.’ “

Nine days later, Judy worried about her daughter’s mental state.

Day 62: “I do worry about her getting depressed and frustrated as she is much more aware of her situation. She did ‘face time’ with Cody tonight but since she can’t speak I worry about what she is thinking and feeling.”

A week later, a speaking valve was placed on Mickala’s tracheotomy tube.

Day 70: “The highlight of the day was hearing Mickala speak. Yes, she was able to talk. … She told the boys (her brothers) she missed them a lot and she loved them. She thanked them for coming to see her. … I was crying so hard I could hardly speak.”

There was good news: Mickala’s lungs appeared to be healing and there may be no need for a heart-lung transplant. But the days dragged on.

Day 135: “My biggest concern for Mickala at this time is her emotional state. She is getting depressed. I tell her we can do or get anything she wants for entertainment, foods, etc. She tells me each time all she wants is to go home. This breaks my heart because it is the one thing I cannot give her at this time.”

Day 157: “We took a trip to the gift shop. Mickala wanted to buy her neighbor, Cameron (age 6), a gift. After all, they have been neighbors for more than 100 days. She picked out a medium-sized stuffed dog. … He named the dog Mickala.”

Enormous support

Mickala, 16, has lost about 40 pounds in the past six months, more than a fourth of her weight, but Judy doesn’t expect that to alter her approach to life.

“She is very much a leader,” Judy said. “Her classmates look to her for guidance, but she’s not really pushy or wanting things her way. She’s kind and considerate of others, not bossy.”

She played softball, volleyball and basketball at Red Lake County Central in Oklee, where athletes this year have been wearing T-shirts that proclaim “Playing for Mickala.” Staff members and students at the school have worn yellow “Hugs for Mickala” shirts.

“The enormous support from home, from all of northwest Minnesota, really, has been wonderful,” Judy said. “Churches in North Dakota and Minnesota had prayer vigils, and there were prayer lists organized in Idaho and Texas and other places.

“There were days we had to learn to put it in God’s hands.”

Mickala has lost a year of school. The family hasn’t decided how to deal with that, whether through catch-up work in the summer or having her re-start the year.

“She’s smart, and she likes to try new things,” her mother said. “And before all this happened, she was thinking about something in the medical field” for a career.

“Maybe that’s changed now, but she’s mentioned (being) a respiratory therapist. ‘I know what it feels like when a trach (a tracheotomy tube) has to be changed,’ she says. ‘I know what it feels like when they have to suction secretions out of your trach.’ And she can tell you everything about how her vent works.”

Mickala is thinking about rejoining her junior class for one event: the junior-senior prom on May 4.

“She would really like to be able to go,” Judy said. “Her doctor told her he thinks it’s really doable. She might have to have oxygen with her, but she could dance. She’s already up to walking 400 feet at a time without a break.”

Article written by Chuck Haga of Forum News Service.

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