Everything is louder than Gloria Mengel.
There’s the sound of staff members being paged inside the lobby of the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City, where the 13-year-old arrives most weekdays for therapy.
Then there’s the institute gymnasium, where the voices of other clients mingle with those of their therapists. That’s where on a recent afternoon, Gloria ran through repetitions with a padded weight, working on her flexibility with physical therapist Michele Ahern.
Then she appeared to speak. Aphasia, the result of a recent stroke, has reduced much of Gloria’s speech to single words or phases, prompting visitors to lean in close.
“I’m bad,” Gloria said.
Say that again?
,” she said, tilting her head to the left and striking a performance-ready pose. Ahern had seen this before: It was Gloria’s inner Michael Jackson.
“No,” Ahern said. “You are not bad.”
If it’s common knowledge that life isn’t fair, Gloria’s experiences represent an especially cruel confirmation.
Since September of 2008, the Independence girl has endured a litany of physical challenges yet has continued to impress doctors, therapists and instructors with a resiliency on daily display.
While medical expenses have exhausted her savings, Gloria’s mother, Tammy Mengel, said her daughter’s story has prompted financial assistance, including one recent significant gift. The goal going forward is to build Gloria’s endurance, making it possible for her to begin a partial schedule at William Chrisman High School this fall.
“I don’t know that I have ever met as inspiring a young lady who has just kept pressing forward,” said Karen Wheeldon, an Independence School District instructor who works with visually impaired students.
“I fully expect her to be back in school, working right alongside her peers, as soon as she is able.”
Gloria’s physical challenges have included, according to Mengel:
• Cancer. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor behind Gloria’s eyes in September 2008. Physicians declared her cancer-free the following June after six rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation.
• Cancer, again. In November 2009, doctors diagnosed acute myeloid leukemia, perhaps caused by one of the chemotherapy drugs. A bone marrow transplant followed in March 2010. The leukemia since has been in remission.
• Blindness. Gloria had been considered legally blind following the initial brain tumor treatment. Then in October 2010, she complained of losing some of the remaining vision in her left eye. A January 2011 MRI found “enhancement” at the original tumor site. During surgery that March doctors found no brain tumor but came upon fibrous scar tissue that likely impaired Gloria’s vision. A combination of factors, they said, led to Gloria losing her sight following the surgery.
• Weight gain. Gloria gained about 80 pounds from late 2010 through the following January, in part from steroids administered during efforts to preserve her vision.
• Two hernias. Gloria has undergone hernia surgery twice, the second time after a seatbelt’s impact on her stomach during a June 2011 car accident.
• Stroke. During or after hernia surgery last August, Gloria suffered a stroke that affected her speech and the right side of her body. She remained at Children’s Mercy Hospital through Nov. 18 and started at the Rehabilitation Institute three days later.
“It’s been one horrific thing after the other,” Mengel said. “Any one of these things may have been too much for anyone else.
“But she keeps going.”
If her illnesses have lowered Gloria’s speaking voice, her response has been to turn up the volume in other ways.
She arrived at the Rehabilitation Institute one recent afternoon wearing a pair of white sunglasses.
She wore a dark brown wig, one of two given to her by a local charity serving children who lose their hair for health-related reasons.
She handed visitors purple wristbands bearing the legend “Gloria’s Guardians” and referencing Matthew 28:20. (“I am with you always.”)
She smiled at the mention of David Cook. The Blue Springs winner of the 2008 American Idol competition twice has visited with Gloria, and she attended his November concert at the Midland Theatre. She also can imitate “Idol” host Ryan Seacrest teasing television audiences with his announcement of the winner between Cook and co-finalist David Archuleta.
,” Gloria said.
Music is more than just recreational to Gloria who, Mengel said, repeats the memorized lyrics to songs by Michael Jackson or the cast of “Glee” to wage daily battle against her aphasia.
It all made it easier to see the teenager who — if she can build up her endurance to her therapists’ satisfaction — could be among her friends at school this August. Wheeldon believes it will happen, as she was struck by the determination Gloria demonstrated by learning Braille following the recent onset of blindness.
“She didn’t have the luxury of knowing she would lose her vision,” Wheeldon said. “So she had to start from square one.”
Last summer’s stroke, however, impacted the right side of Gloria’s body, including the fine motor skills in her right hand. Although there is a one-handed Braille mode, Wheeldon said, “We are not there yet.”
Jennifer Linebarger, a Children’s Mercy Hospital pediatrician, said Gloria fits the description of a “medically complex” patient, meaning someone with “an extensive list of different parts of the body that are not working well, and often receiving multiple medications.”
While stressing that she only recently has become Gloria’s pediatrician, Linebarger outlined specific hopes for her.
“I am hoping that she is able to walk more independently,” she said, “so that she can return to school and have more normal social interaction with her peers. She has had more interaction with nurses and therapists and physicians than she has had with classmates.”
Under the guidance of Rehabilitation Institute therapists, Gloria has been walking perhaps 150 feet, two or three times a session.
“She has made tremendous strides,” Ahern said.
All this would be challenge enough without having to meet the medical and related expenses.
Mengel, who is separated from her husband, is on leave from her job as a pharmacy technician and currently has a temporary, six-month health insurance plan.
Three times in the last year the state of Missouri has sued her for a total of more than $2,500 in unpaid taxes. Mengel isn’t sure if the liens are related to several work-at-home jobs she initiated to generate income in recent years, but said she plans to contact state officials and her tax adviser to resolve the issue.
Her family has received financial assistance. A fund has been established through Bank of America to meet medical and other expenses. She also has started a “Gloria’s Guardians” drive on IndieGoGo, an online campaign funding site. The drive hopes to raise $50,000 to cover expenses such as the wheelchair lift at Mengel’s Independence home.
The campaign runs through Feb. 28.
Sometimes, miracles occur. Earlier this month Tim Lockyear, president of the Supporting Kids Foundation of Lenexa, came to the Mengel home with a check to cover what he called a “significant percentage” of the IndieGoGo campaign goal.
The foundation, Lockyear said, seeks to ease the financial strain on parents or guardians whose children are fighting cancer.
“The spirit of both Tammy and Gloria was amazing to me, given the circumstances,” Lockyear said.
Such miracles, Mengel said, make it easier to believe her daughter can soon return to a normal life. Sometimes that day seems especially distant; this past weekend Gloria was admitted to Children’s Mercy Hospital for a respiratory ailment.
She was responding to treatment, Mengel said.
“We’re kind of nervous about getting to some kind of normal, someday,” Mengel added.
“We are not at that normal yet.”