Love from four students lifts spirits of paralyzed teacher

Four teenage girls, texting and cell phoning. Sounds like the start of a car accident. Yet this time, it’s a story of four Cheyenne High School students trying to help their teacher hospitalized in Austria, her right arm suddenly paralyzed.

Melodie Simon is the teacher and this marks her second paralysis. In 2000, during operations on her spine, she became permanently paralyzed from the sternum down. Reluctantly, she became the center of a highly publicized federal investigation into collusion between her doctors and her personal injury lawyer.

After becoming a paraplegic, Simon returned to the thing she loved most after her family — teaching. She taught and coached from a wheelchair.

Now she can’t drive. She can’t teach or coach volleyball with only one arm. Everything she does takes longer. Yet when we spoke Friday, she wanted to talk about Mary Moody, Crystal Bonnetts, Emily Herdt and Quincy Ellsworth, the four girls who kept her spirits up when she was hospitalized for 18 days.

Simon prides herself on her independence. She hadn’t traveled alone since becoming paralyzed, but decided she could do it and would use spring vacation to visit the family of a foreign exchange student who lived with the Simons in 1999. She arrived March 25 in Germany, then went to Austria; but on March 30 she was hospitalized after her right arm began having spasms. Then it went numb. Finally it was paralyzed.

Doctors believe it was because of a virus. She has been told she may regain the use of her arm in about six months.

While hospitalized, her Austrian friend came and her husband Mike Simon was a phone call away in Las Vegas, working.

“The girls called and texted every day,” Simon said.

They asked what they could do, what messages she needed them to relay.

“None of us could go a day without thinking of her; she’s like having a mom at school,” Mary Moody said. “She’s the most selfless person I know, and we knew she needed our help.”

Simon credited the four girls with lifting her spirits. When I told Mary that, the 16-year-old said, “See, that’s exactly how she is. She’s stuck in a hospital and she gives us credit.”

Simon has been open with her students about the challenges she faces.

“She’s inspiring to anyone who meets her to be a better person,” Mary said.

“I’m way blessed to have students who have an open heart,” Simon said. “They love me and I see that.”

They also trust her in a world where trust can be betrayed.

Simon feels betrayed by her former attorney, Noel Gage, and plans to speak at his June 25 sentencing by U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush. Simon still can’t understand how Gage could betray the trust she put in him when she was most vulnerable. She also wants to show Quackenbush what happened to her “is very much a big deal.”

Gage will enter an Alford plea to obstruction of justice, so he can maintain his innocence. Since the judge openly indicated he disagreed with the government’s case, Gage is likely to receive probation. Admissions made by consultant Howard Awand and Dr. Mark Kabins in their plea bargains, plus testimony by government witness Dr. John Thalgott, describe how Gage met secretly with Thalgott and Kabins and agreed not to sue them for malpractice even though it reduced Simon’s personal injury award by millions.

This second paralysis on top of the first is devastating Simon because she loves teaching, sports and students.

“I never thought I’d be in this position at 51. Part of my life has been taken away. Losing that part hurts.”

Meanwhile, she’s demonstrating grace under pressure, a life lesson for anyone, 16 or 60.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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