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Health & Fitness

The Girl Who Survived a 3,500-Foot Fall

A skydiving adventure became a nightmare for this teenager.
By Liz Johnstone |

Saturday, January 25, in Chickasha, Oklahoma, dawned cold and blustery but clear. Makenzie Wethington, 16, wore layers, topped off by a blue flight suit. The evening before, she and her father, Joe Wethington, had driven the 200 miles north from Joshua, Texas. They woke up at 6 am Saturday morning to go skydiving, something she had always wanted to do. 

“Every little kid wants to learn how to fly,” Makenzie says. “I thought it was the closest thing to flying.”

At the Pegasus Air Sport Center, they trained with Bob Swainson, the instructor and owner for 36 years. Tandem wasn’t available. At the time, Oklahoma law allowed her to leap alone. She called her mother, who had signed consent forms believing that she would be doing a tandem jump, and told her she was about fly solo. Holly Wethington, back in Joshua, didn’t believe her. 

Makenzie tucked her blond hair into a helmet. At 3,500 feet, it was time. Her father went first. Makenzie remembers looking out the door of the small Cessna and the prayer she said for her and her father’s safety. She remembers the freezing air, the powerful wind whipping past her face. She remembers jumping. She remembers screaming and hearing a voice in her ear, telling her to “Cut loose.” She remembers little about what happened next, and eyewitness accounts vary. Her father and Swainson have stated that Makenzie’s parachute deployed. But as she fell, she went into a spin that didn’t stop until she did. She landed on her back. 

She was airlifted to OU Medical Center with lacerations to the liver and kidneys, a broken pelvis, a broken shoulder blade, a broken tooth, three fractured thoracic vertebrae, several broken ribs, air pockets in her lungs, and bleeding in and around her brain. 

“We didn’t even know if she was going to make it through,” Holly says. 

Doctors performed an angiogram to stop the bleeding in her liver. When they told Holly the procedure had worked, she said it was a miracle. 

Makenzie’s luck would hold, as her new doctors at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation, in Dallas, discovered after her arrival on January 31. Her medical transport took several hours and a stop at Dairy Queen. Dr. Seema Sikka and Christina Fazio, Makenzie’s physical therapist, were waiting. After having read her file, “her condition was actually better than I thought,” Sikka says. 

None of her fractures had displaced bone, so surgery was unnecessary. The air pockets in her lungs resolved over time, as did her minor brain bleeds and lingering trouble with her kidneys. For Sikka and Fazio, it was a matter of monitoring those issues, managing Makenzie’s pain, and working to regain her mobility and independence. 

The rehabilitation team, which included a neuropsychologist, an occupational therapist, a dietician, and a speech therapist, monitored aspects of her recovery as she progressed from walking with a walker to taking a few steps without it. Sikka says it’s amazing that Makenzie wasn’t permanently hurt. Both Sikka and Fazio have seen patients who have fallen shorter distances (a two-story balcony, for example) and suffered greater injuries.

“She was young, she was motivated, and she was willing to push through the pain,” Fazio says. 

Mentally, though, Makenzie struggled. A straight-A student, she tired easily when asked to solve basic problems. The Baylor team coordinated her mental exercises with lessons from her high school so she didn’t fall behind.

She left Baylor two weeks after she arrived. Today, nearly nine months after her fall, she feels just a few lingering effects, like nightmares and headaches so bad that they sometimes make her sick. Her bones ache when there’s bad weather, but that won’t stop her from trying out for track this year. She’s just grateful God has given her the chance.

“Knowing that I lived, there are no words for how I feel,” Makenzie says.