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David T. Foster III
After spending seven months in a hospital following a horrific car accident, 19-year-old Morgan Wetherbee died from her injuries while being prayed over by both loved ones and total strangers.
Until the very end — right up to the moment her 19-year-old daughter took her last breath inside Shepherd Center’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Hospital in Atlanta — Melody Wetherbee was hoping for, practically expecting, a miracle. For seven long months, in fact, Melody had clung to the belief that her Morgan Grace would make a miraculous recovery from the array of devastating injuries she’d suffered when a reckless driver slammed head-on into the Toyota Yaris she was driving through northeast Charlotte. As Morgan endured surgery after surgery after surgery, Melody spent night after night after night at her daughter’s bedside. As doctor after doctor after doctor arrived to deliver an update, Melody felt like that miracle was just around the corner. She felt it coming every time Morgan opened her eyes, or when she would start breathing over the ventilator, or when she would move an arm on command, even if those signs of progress often seemed too few and far between. After all, in the weeks and months after the accident, a Facebook page originally created by Melody’s younger sister, Melinda Hill, to keep family and friends updated on Morgan’s condition had taken on a life of its own, attracting thousands of total strangers who had begun praying for a miracle along with them. After all, Melody and Melinda kept coming across a Bible verse they’d rarely encountered before — Psalm 46:5, which reads, “God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day,” — and they figured it was a sign. After all, their family believes miracles have rescued it before. There was no question in her mind early on: God wouldn’t have let Morgan survive this accident, Melody remembers thinking, if she wasn’t going to recover. So it almost doesn’t even seem possible, she says now, that the daughter who was also her best friend is gone, having died Dec. 4 after her months-long effort to overcome a traumatic brain injury. It almost doesn’t seem real. Melody Wetherbee with her daughter, Morgan. Courtesy of Melinda Hill and Melody Wetherbee But while the happily-ever-after she had dreamed of for Morgan’s story never materialized, Melody is coming to the realization that the legacy her daughter has left behind is, in its own way, an unexpected gift. Morgan Wetherbee struggles to find her place Back in May, in the days and even the hours before the accident, Morgan seemed to be struggling a little bit with her place in the world. Earlier that week, as all the pieces were locking neatly into place for her to earn her associate’s degree from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College later in the month, she told her mom she didn’t know what kind of career she wanted. “Everybody else seems to have a purpose and a plan for their life,” Morgan said, “but I don’t know what I want to be. I don’t know what I want to do with my life.” She famously loved spaghetti, but that was hardly a marketable skill. Her family teased her about her irritability and her low tolerance for stupidity, but neither of those things looked good on a resume either. She was an artist, but while she had a strong passion for it she wasn’t necessarily sure she had legitimate talent. On the day of the accident, she was still feeling mopey when she walked into the home office in Melody’s Concord home and plopped down in a chair by her mom’s desk. “I know this is terrible, but I feel like nobody cares if I’m here. Nobody is even thinking about me,” Morgan said to Melody. There’s context needed here, by the way: In 11 days she was to celebrate her 19th birthday amid preparations for her brother AJ’s backyard wedding ceremony, which was to take place the following weekend. “I just don’t think anybody is even gonna remember or anything. I know that’s so selfish, and I’m so sorry. But I don’t know if I mean anything to anybody.” Melody tried to cheer her up, but she could tell that what she was saying was not what Morgan needed to hear. So after Morgan left the room, Melody texted Morgan’s boyfriend — Ethan Suchanoff, a former Jay M. Robinson High School classmate who she’d been dating for three years — and together they hatched a plan to throw her a surprise party. Morgan Wetherbee with her boyfriend, Ethan Suchanoff. “I’m thankful, as a mom, that my daughter got to experience that kind of love before she passed on,” Melody Wetherbee says of Ethan. Courtesy of Melody Wetherbee A few hours later, just before 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 7, Morgan decided to drive over to Ethan’s to finish one of her final assignments of the semester. Melody was on top of their barn sweeping leaves off the roof to get it cleaned up for the wedding as Morgan walked out to her car. “Mom, you be careful up there!” Morgan shouted. And then she yelled over at her younger sister, Katie, and her brother’s bride-to-be, Jesse. “You better watch Mom. Make sure she doesn’t fall!” They were the last words her family ever heard her say. After the wreck, her parents cling to hope She probably had almost no time to see it coming. According to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, as Morgan drove down North Tryon Street out of Concord and into Charlotte, 24-year-old Breeana McClain lost control of the Nissan Maxima she was driving in the opposite direction, hopped the median, and plowed into Morgan’s little Yaris. McClain — who police say was speeding and driving recklessly despite having a revoked license, no registration, no insurance and an open container of alcohol in the vehicle — sustained only minor injuries. Morgan, meanwhile, was in such gruesome condition that even though Melody arrived at the scene before the ambulance had left, first-responders declined to let her see her daughter, in no small part because they knew seeing bones sticking out of Morgan’s limbs was something Melody wouldn’t be able to un-see. All she could do was look at the remains of the car and thank God that Morgan was still breathing. The wreckage of Morgan Wetherbee’s Toyota Yaris. Courtesy of Melody Wetherbee Initially, the medical focus was on the orthopedic injuries and the internal bleeding caused by severe abdominal trauma, all critical issues; but in the middle of the night, the family says, doctors at Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center discovered the most concerning of her ailments: a brain bleed that they warned could eventually lead to significant brain damage. Six days later, she was in a coma and on life support. Her doctors had sat down with Melody and Morgan’s dad — Melody’s ex-husband, Jason Wetherbee of Atlanta — and shown them the brain scans that indicated how much of Morgan’s brain had died, and what it all meant for their daughter’s quality of life. They even were presented with the option of letting her go. But Morgan’s parents wouldn’t think of it. “We had to at least try,” Melody says. “I could not have had that kind of guilt on my conscience the rest of my life, to know that I didn’t do everything I could have for her.” Plus, Melody’s family thought, maybe God would bring her back around the way he brought their patriarch back around in 2003. As the story goes, that year, her father — Bradley Price, who served as senior pastor at multiple Baptist churches in the Charlotte area — had a heart attack while hunting alone, but before collapsing, he was able to use his cellphone to reach a friend who would lead paramedics to his tree stand. His heart was shocked more than a dozen times to keep him alive on the way to the hospital, where he ended up on life support for 12 days. Doctors put his chances of survival at 1% and warned that if he did pull through, he would be in a vegetative state because his brain had been without oxygen for so long. After several failed attempts to get him off the ventilator, they decided to give him one last shot before letting him go ... and he wound up beating the odds, big-time. Not only did he wake up with zero brain damage, but a few weeks later he was back at the pulpit. Several months later he had a heart transplant, going on to live for 12 more years in near-perfect health before he died from a fall in 2015. “Our family, we have seen God do miraculous things,” said Melinda, Melody’s sister, ”so ... I think there was just that ongoing question we had of ‘What’s God gonna do for Morgan?’” And before long, much to Melinda’s surprise, first hundreds and then thousands of hopeful, prayerful others were all wondering the same thing. Hope and the power of social media Melinda, her husband, Daniel, and their three children live in Seattle, where he is a worship pastor and the two of them have a side business as portrait photographers. Or, at least, they technically live there. In May, they came to North Carolina for Morgan’s brother’s wedding and basically never left. Melinda just felt like she needed to be there for her sister. And for her niece. Two days after the accident, Melinda created the Facebook page — called, simply, “Morgan Grace Wetherbee” — and initially, she says “it was just to keep people from calling (Melody), and even just our siblings and family. I was like, ‘They don’t need to be calling her. I’ll just put it all in one spot.’” The first post Melinda put up said: “Thank you so much for all of your prayers and support! We have decided to create this page as a place for updates and to tell Morgan’s story.” It generated 14 comments. The second post, published the next day, said: “Urgent prayers, please! Things are not going in the direction that we had hoped. If you will pause and plead to the Father on Morgan’s behalf, we desperately need a miracle.” It found a much wider audience, eventually snowballing to 364 comments and 155 shares and blanketing Morgan and her family in virtual love. Over the course of Morgan’s month-long stay at Atrium, Melinda posted practically every day, combining updates on Morgan’s condition that were being relayed to her from Melody (due to COVID-19, Melinda wasn’t able to visit herself) with photos of and stories about and artwork by Morgan that painted a picture of who she was before the accident. To celebrate Morgan’s 19th birthday, on May 18, Melinda encouraged followers of the page to donate $19 to a GoFundMe the family had set up to offset the costs of Morgan’s care; they received more than $1,100 in $19 donations alone that day. A collection of cards and messages sent to Morgan Wetherbee on her 19th birthday. Courtesy of Melody Wetherbee The day after Morgan’s brother got married, on May 22, Melinda shared that the nurses had slipped Morgan into her bridesmaid dress for the occasion and patched her in via Facetime. More than 1,000 people clicked either the like, love, care or sad emoji on the post. And on June 4, when Melinda announced Morgan had moved her right arm on command — perhaps the best news the family had gotten in the wake of 10 surgeries to repair her various injuries and a laundry list of setbacks — thousands of Facebook users stood up and virtually cheered. So on June 5, when she was put on an airplane and transported from Charlotte to Shepherd Center’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Hospital in Atlanta, a tremendous surge of hope backed by an army of prayers made the trip along with her. Then Melinda reported that on the day after Morgan was admitted, her niece gave a thumbs-up to her doctors. Indeed, to everyone involved, it genuinely felt like Morgan’s story had become something special. That a miraculous recovery was so close it could almost be tasted. They probably never could have imagined, however, what the road ahead would look like. ‘So many medical issues’ There are a couple of important things to understand about Morgan’s case: First, while the moving of her arm and the thumbs-up sign were certainly victories, they were very small victories. Morgan wasn’t anywhere close to being able to talk, and in fact was stuck in what is referred to as a minimally conscious state, meaning she had some awareness when she was awake — but that that awareness was at least moderately and at times severely impaired. Secondly, remember, she had a lot more going on than just the brain injury. There were the orthopedic and abdominal injuries, both of which were significant reasons why she had required so many surgeries. She had a breathing tube in her neck, and sometimes she would have to go on a ventilator for additional respiratory support. At one point, she had pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis. And this is a vast oversimplification of her condition. A detailed documenting of her medical journey could fill a book. So it’s perhaps best all summed up this way: Over time, says Kelly Brawand, Morgan’s case manager at Shepherd, “it seemed like she had so many medical issues that were kind of getting in the way of us really being able to focus on (brain-injury) rehab. And the medical staff here would say that the longer that we’re in this kind of minimally conscious vegetative state, the poorer your prognosis becomes.” Courtesy of Melody Wetherbee It’s evident in Melinda’s posts. There continued to be little victories to celebrate here and there, but there also seemed to constantly be various setbacks, and various unknowns, or the need for patience, often because one aspect of her care being able to move forward hinged on some other aspect of her care. Brawand says the average length of stay at Shepherd is roughly six weeks. Morgan ended up being there for six months. For much of the time, her mother Melody was right by her side. From June to August, in fact, she was essentially quarantined in the room with Morgan due to COVID, unable to leave unless she didn’t want to come back. In August, once they reopened the family housing next to the hospital, she and Morgan’s father Jason switched off staying in her room. Meanwhile, the family kept holding onto hope for a miracle — and so did those following Morgan’s Facebook page, which Melinda says had swelled to a reach of more than 100,000 people, according to analytic data she could see as its administrator. But the closest they got was in June, when Morgan raised one, then two, then three, then four fingers, on command; and in mid-November, when she had stabilized enough that Shepherd Center was preparing to discharge her so Melody and home health nurses could care for Morgan in a residence Melody had rented in Atlanta, so they could be near the hospital. Less than two days before she was to go home, however, came another setback. And it was a big one. Like many patients with similar traumatic brain injuries, Morgan had a condition where the fluid circulating around her brain wasn’t being absorbed properly by her body, Brawand says, so they put in a shunt to redirect the fluid in hopes that it would be reabsorbed in a different part of her body. They tried three different areas. None worked. “They got to where they were making it sound more like ... ‘We can’t guarantee anything,’” Melody says. “‘We have very little hope that any of this will succeed. There are no good options.’ I mean, these are all the words that we were hearing. And we had collectively made the decision that either she healed and she was recovering and on a path of recovery, or we wouldn’t make her suffer like that.” By December, it had become painfully clear: “I realized,” she says, “that this was not gonna be the miracle that we had hoped for.” On Dec. 4 — the day after Melinda had revealed to her thousands of followers that the teenager was being removed from life support, and nearly seven months after the accident — Morgan Grace Wetherbee took her final breath with her mother, her father, and her boyfriend by her bedside. She had finally found peace. The question then really became: Would her family ever be able to? ‘I need to find courage’ Upon Morgan’s passing, Breeana McClain was charged with involuntary manslaughter and is currently in the custody of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. But that isn’t helping the family feel a true sense of closure. This past Monday, Morgan was buried at Gethsemane Cemetery and Memorial Gardens, in a plot at the foot of her maternal grandfather’s (the one who made the miraculous recovery from the heart attack 17 years ago). On this day, Melody and Melinda are sitting on the patio behind their mother’s house off Rocky River Road in northeast Charlotte, and a visitor is asking Melody how she tried to refocus, spiritually, upon realizing a miracle wasn’t going to save her daughter. “She has been my rock throughout this whole event,” says Melody Wetherbee of her sister, Melinda Hill (left). “She has been the person I’ve called whenever I’m struggling, and she’s also taken all my bunches of emotion that I’ve given to her and made it into this beautiful story and put it on Facebook.” David T. Foster III [email protected] “Even the morning that we had to take her off of the ventilator, I was thinking, ‘Oh wait, the verse says that ‘God will help her at the break of dawn!’” Melody says, referring to the psalm that seemed to keep showing up in random places, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the accident. “(But) I understand that God has this tapestry. It’s a revelation that’s continually hopefully gonna happen. ... It’s just hard to understand sometimes.” Melinda then picks up on that point and says, “I think we all kind of went through trying to figure out God in this, like, ‘Oh, well, this would really make sense if this happened,’ or ‘If he would just make this happen then it would be great for his glory.’ ... But it’s about realizing that God really is bigger than our minds can comprehend. And so you just have to say, ‘OK, I’m gonna stop trying to figure this out, because we can’t.’” At the same time, one thing is strikingly clear: Morgan, who in the final days before the accident wondered whether she mattered to people, ended up mattering a great deal. It wasn’t just that people, even total strangers, had hoped and prayed by the thousands for her health. It was also the idea — as her maternal grandmother, Madell Price, pointed out at a memorial service on Monday in Concord — that Morgan “taught us how to pray with passion ... taught us what hope looks like ... taught us to hold onto those that we love so tightly ... (and) taught us that we need to live for Jesus because life can be so brief.” “Just looking through all of the messages, the comments — it’s like, ‘OK, there was purpose,’” Melinda says. “Maybe it was one person, maybe it was 10 people.” She says, for instance, that she was contacted through the Facebook page by a woman who told Melinda that she’d been battling depression and suicidal thoughts, but that she was buoyed tremendously by a short, simple illustrated poem by Morgan that the family had decided to post. Found in the bottom of a box of her old markers a week before she died, it said, simply: “Sometimes you have to say goodbye. Sometimes you have to hide. Sometimes you have to cry. Sometimes you have to love.” The childhood drawing that Morgan Wetherbee’s family found. Courtesy of Melody Wetherbee Melody says she hasn’t been emotionally ready to read many of the comments on the page, but adds, “The things I have read are from people who’ve said that their lives will be forever changed from that piece of artwork that was done years and years ago from Morgan. And I think that the pain and the suffering that we all experienced over these last seven months, in my opinion, it’s worth it if there have been others that have been helped.” Something else worth pointing out: Although the many prayers didn’t produce a miracle that saved Morgan’s life, they — at least on some level — saved Melody and Melinda and the rest of the family. “I absolutely feel like people’s prayers,” Melinda says, “have been the thing that has kept us from completely —” Then the two sisters finish the sentence together: “— falling apart.” “The sorrow is there,” Melody says. “But there is also this sense of gentleness that’s surrounding it. It’s not like it’s taking it away. It’s just almost cushioned. And I think it comes from those prayers.” As for finding a true feeling of closure? Melody takes a deep breath before answering. “Well, I need to find courage. I don’t know if there’s —” she pauses, then starts again. “I mean, there will be peace. I think. Eventually. But right now it’s just about courage. Courage to walk through the next journey and the next steps.” Melinda nods her head and smiles at her sister. “Don’t worry,” she says to her. “We’ll get there.” Melody replies softly, and hopefully: “I know.” Morgan Wetherbee’s coffin rests among a sea of sunflowers at her memorial service on Monday at Hotel Concord. Courtesy of Melinda Hill and Melody Wetherbee
Théoden Janes has spent 14 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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Did you know that geoFence is your security solution to protect you and your business from foreign state actors?