Despite the life-changing events of a sudden brain aneurysm and stroke, a young woman defies the odds and learns to run again. The incredible and awe-inspiring story of Makayla Mayo and her family. Written by Mel Charbonneau, co-founder of Fellow Flowers. Photography by Heather Krakora, of Krakora Studios.
By all accounts, Makayla Mayo is a medical miracle.
At the age of 18, just three weeks after graduating high school in Gwinn, Michigan, in 2013, Makayla suffered a sudden grade 4 brain aneurysm. Grade 5 is the worst, and statistically, even to survive her circumstances, the doctors prepared her parents, Tina and Tom, for the possibility of severe brain damage and paralysis.
It started with a severe headache, which soon led to slurred speech. In realizing something was truly wrong, Tina and Tom rushed her to Marquette General Hospital. Tina, a practicing nurse, recalls the laundry list of predictable questions a parent is asked when they bring a disoriented teenager into the emergency room.
“Honestly, I remember frustration,” she said. “I knew my child, and I knew something was very wrong, and I had to say it over and over and over again.”
And then, two hours after arriving, Makayla suffered a three and half minute grand mal seizure. For Tina, it is still hard to put into words what she felt in those moments.
“I just remember seeing her slip away, and all I could tell her was ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’”
CT scans revealed a blood bleed in Makayla’s frontal lobe, which was later traced to a ruptured aneurysm in the anterior communicating artery. Makayla, who was now sedated, needed immediate surgery, something Marquette was not equipped to handle. To have any chance of survival, she would need to be put on a medical flight downstate to the University of Michigan’s hospital.
“I knew we had to go there, but I was scared,” Tina said. “I did not have good memories of being there.”
What many do not know, is that Tina and Tom had traveled to this same hospital 15 years earlier with another child — another precious daughter — who at just 4 weeks-old, lost her fight and passed away.
This wasn’t just revisiting a hospital; it was revisiting pain and loss. It was facing fears, and overcoming them.
Once there, Makayla’s initial surgery went very well. Two days later, Tina remembers Makayla being the same as she’d always been – walking, laughing, talking and eating normal food. And yet, the doctors warned them that while they had treated the aneurysmal rupture, vasospasms – a constrictive narrowing of the cerebral arteries, which restricts blood flow to the brain – could still develop.
“I kept thinking, no, that won’t be us,” Tina recalls. “I really believed we had gotten through everything, and we were in the clear. That we were going to be OK.”
Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Spasms occurred four days after surgery, requiring more operations, and it was during her third surgery when Makayla suffered an ischemic stroke. It was this stroke that was the thief of her recovery and progress, robbing her of nearly all function, and ability to speak and move.
“It was seven hours of silence – of not knowing,” Tina says of that surgery. She remembers the doctor coming out with his hands up near his face, shaking his head and telling her there was nothing more he could do. In every attempt to keep her vessels open, another would collapse. “He had done everything in his power to keep her alive. We just didn’t know if it would be enough.”
Makayla’s blood pressure and heart rate continued to be erratic after surgery, and the doctors prepared Tina and Tom with the possibility that she may not make it through the night.
Tina remembers letting her mind drift to that place only once, and very briefly. “I pulled myself out of it right away and brought my mind back. I refused to believe she wouldn’t make it. I just mentally made that decision – she would make it.”
She told the doctors the same. “I remember looking at them and saying, ‘She cannot die. You cannot let her die. I will not have another child die here.”
For seven days, Tina and Tom sat by their daughter’s side and waited for her to wake up.
A Community Rallies Through Miles
Tina is the first to tell you that the Mayo family isn’t one that seeks the spotlight.
“We are fairly private. Just an ordinary family that keeps to ourselves.”
And yet, word of Makayla’s condition was spreading, and for a small tight-knit community, it’s hard for such events to go unnoticed. After dozens of phone calls, text messages and emails, Tina just couldn’t keep up. “The support was overwhelming. I knew everyone meant well, but it was all I could do to just focus on Makayla. She had to be my priority.”
Tina also understood they needed a way to let people know how she was doing. So when a close friend created the Facebook page “Miles for Makayla,” she immediately felt gratitude and relief. She also remembers it pushing her way out of her comfort zone.
“It felt very public, and I remember struggling with knowing what to share and when to share it.”
At the same time, she recognized the incredible value of being able to communicate with everyone, both quickly and accurately. It also allowed a community to rally around and support Makayla’s recovery by doing the one thing she loved more than anything – running.
If you knew Makayla, you knew she loved to run.
She had participated in both track and field and cross-country while in high school, but Tina always felt it wasn’t the competition of running that drew Makayla in, but rather, the freedom.
“When she was running, she was at her best. She just lit up. Whenever she’d come home from a run, she was always in a better mood.”
The community response to Miles for Makayla stunned Tina.
“It was just a simple idea,” she recalls. “A way for people to show support, but I couldn’t believe what it turned into. It was truly incredible. I swear I could feel the power of prayer coming through those miles.”
For a community, first locally and then nationally, it became a way of letting the Mayo family know they were not alone. Soon, the page was filled with inspirational messages from community members, posting their miles in Makayla’s honor. The letter “M” quickly became a meaningful symbol – photos streaming in of shoes, rocks, people and serendipitous sightings – all resembling this letter. From individuals to schools to community organizations – all were logging miles for this young woman and her family. It was a community channeling their prayers, thoughts and strength through the one thing that brought Makayla her greatest joy.
And in those days following Makayla’s stroke, Tina truly believes that Makayla felt them – every last one.
In the week that followed Makayla’s stroke, Tina began to learn the true toll it had taken on her daughter, both physically and mentally. “We couldn’t live day-by-day; we lived hour-by-hour.”
Makayla was heavily sedated and unable to talk. During neurology checks, the doctors would test her responsiveness to various stimuli and questions. They would ask her for a “thumbs up” to indicate whether she could hear and understand them.
“The first time we saw that thumb go up, we rejoiced,” remembers Tina. These small victories signified huge milestones in her progress. “Sometimes I remember just sitting there with the nurses and we’d all be waiting for movement, literally willing her thumb up into the air.”
For Tina, she vividly remembers one of her first thoughts while Makayla was sedated.
“As crazy as it was, I wasn’t even thinking about her walking again. I just kept thinking, she’s going to be devastated if she can’t run anymore. It was her outlet, and I just thought, she’ll be so upset if she can never do it again.”
Then came the wiggle of a toe. Her legs, Tina realized, were responding.
And then, on the morning of June 29th, seven days after Makayla suffered her stroke, she woke up.
“I really had no idea how serious it all was,” Makayla acknowledges.
Makayla remembers the drive to the hospital the night of her aneurysm, and only a few moments while in the emergency room before her seizure. She remembers, albeit vaguely, the brief period of time after her initial surgery on the ICU floor before suffering the stroke. She remembers other fragments, like pens being rolled up and down her feet. And the morning she woke up – she remembers that too, more than anything, she remembers the look on her parents’ faces.
When Tina and Tom arrived that morning, they expected to find her still sedated, just like every morning previous. Instead, they walked in to her room and found her perfectly alert and playing on her iPad.
“My parents came in and they were all excited that I was awake. But I had no idea that I had been ‘out’ for so long. At that time, I didn’t really understand how big of a moment it was and why they were so happy.”
That joyful morning, literally during the same timeframe when she woke up, over 200 community members had gathered in her hometown of Gwinn, Michigan and were running some Miles for Makayla. Perhaps there is a prayer in every mile.
One Foot in Front of the Other
With two teenage sons at home who also needed their parents, Tina and Tom decided that he would head back to Gwinn to be with them, and she would stay with Makayla. Slowly letting Makayla know the gravity of what had happened and tucking her own worries aside, Tina became Makayla’s rock during the four weeks of rigorous physical and speech therapy. Seemingly simple tasks like sitting up in her bed were monumental undertakings. Makayla was learning everything all over again, and her therapists would not allow her to move forward until she had proven she could master each task. Many times, it was just sheer frustration trying to rekindle the relationship between her mind – which knew what it wanted to do – and her body, which seemed to annoyingly lag behind.
Day after day, she worked. She believes that being part of her cross-country team and having a coach who motivated and pushed her was a big reason why she responded so well to the demands of therapy. “They would give me a new task, and I would do it. I would at least always try.”
When it came time to begin the process of learning how to walk again, Makayla wanted it badly. “That was a major goal for me, and it took a lot of work. I walked up and down that hallway so many times just trying to get stronger. ”
And on the day she finally walked on her own, she laughs at her motivation. “I think I was actually trying to reach a nearby candy cart in the hospital hallway – it had chocolate on it. And then all of a sudden everyone realized I was walking toward it on my own.”
Tina, in part to document all of Makayla’s milestones and progress for Tom when he couldn’t be there, started recording video footage on Makayla’s iPod. Sitting up for the first time, standing for the first time, walking independently, stepping outside, enjoying the sunshine – all moments captured by Tina.
And though she has given Makayla the entire history of what’s happened and shown her the videos and photos, she can still sense a distance in Makayla’s memory. The pieces are there, but for Makayla, the depth of their significance is sometimes hard to grasp.
She’s also the first to say that her parents, particularly her mother, endured as much as she did, just in a different way.
“Through everything, my mom was always there for me. I could talk to her, and I could trust her,” Makayla said. “She held the worry and emotion for me. It would have been horrible to be there without her. I’m very, very lucky. Knowing what she did for me, well, it just made me feel pretty awesome.”
And on August 16th, exactly 60 days from when she was admitted, Makayla was cleared to return home.
Transition and New Beginnings
Tina, while thankful for the transition home, knew the recovery was not complete and the journey was far from over. While Makayla no longer needed the safety and resources of the hospital, she still needed significant care. “Many didn’t know that amidst the celebration of her homecoming, we were still very much figuring out our new existence as a family.”
There was a lot of attention paid to the Mayo family during those following weeks, and for a family who didn’t seek the spotlight; it at times felt uncomfortable and seemingly impossible to avoid. It became overwhelming to even think about properly recognizing and thanking all of the people who had supported them.
“We knew everyone cared, and we knew they were grateful that she was still with us,” Tina said. “And don’t get me wrong, we were too – but we were also still dealing with so many unknowns, and I think it was really hard to openly tell people that.”
Looking back, Tina realizes much of that struggle was in her own coming to terms with what had happened and navigating what had become her new ‘normal.’
“Makayla was different after the stroke,” Tina said. “Not bad, just different. There were so many things about her that had changed, and we were creating all new bonds. In some ways, I think I had to grieve the loss of who she was before everything happened – her dreams, her plans and her personality. In many ways, we were beginning again.”
Makayla’s now carefree – sometimes even defiant – spirit, for example, is something a bit new for Tina, contrasting with the quiet, often reserved, daughter she raised.
“But I’ve also learned so much from watching her this past year,” Tina says of Makayla’s resilience, patience and dedication. “She never complained during the entire time she was in the hospital. Who could have blamed her for wanting to, but there was never a pity party. She worked so hard.”
And yet, throughout this past year, amidst all of the new beginnings, two things have remained constant – an unshakeable bond between a mother and a daughter, and a young woman’s unwavering and deep connection to a sport she loved. Hardwired, and heartwired, it was where her mind still felt most at home, and free.
A Return to Running
Makayla remembers the day, just a few months ago, when her therapist mentioned she could try running on the treadmill. Despite several months of physical therapy now behind her, she questioned her own readiness.
“I was a little surprised that she said I could try. I didn’t think I was strong enough yet,” she says, concerned her body couldn’t handle it. “But my therapist told me I was, and so I tried.”
Although very slow and a bit unsteady, she ran. “It may not have looked like I was running, but I was definitely running.”
It was getting back to a sport she loved, but more than anything, it was reclaiming her freedom, step by determined step.
Last year, prior to her anerysum, she had tossed around the idea of running her first half marathon. While Makayla was an avid runner and competed in cross country meets, she had never actually participated in a formal race. But like everything else in her recovery, Makayla needed a new goal to chase.
“I’ve loved having goals,” Makayla said. “It kept me focused on something positive. First it was walking. Then it was getting to come home. Then learning to run again. And now, it was running in a race.”
Spring was on its way, and Tina could tell the Makayla was ready.
“We knew this race was coming up, and I thought it might be a good opportunity for Makayla to try and run,” says Tina of the local Hope Starts Here race in Marquette, which also happens to raise funds for brain tumor research. It took all of a few seconds for Makayla to agree.
Miles, by Makayla
For the past year, Makayla has drawn inspiration and strength from the thousands of people who have run for her. But today, a very excited and determined young woman was proud to say the miles were all hers, and the journey, on her own terms. Shortly before the race, a friend asked Makayla if she had a goal in her sights.
“Just to finish,” she smiled back.
At every turn, it was impossible to miss her smile and the bold turquoise word printed across her shirt – Believe. The once limiting frustrations of relearning how to balance and walk again were replaced with her natural-born effortless stride, and a visible appreciation for the beauty, sunshine and people around her.
For these thirty minutes – nearly 10 months after suffering her aneurysm – she was just an ordinary runner enjoying her miles, and she couldn’t have been happier.
And for a young woman who’s mind once struggled to convey it’s emotion, there was no mistaking the joy and pride on her face as she approached the final turn. With her hands defiantly raised, she crossed her first ever finish line, and it was clear that Makayla didn’t just finish this race.
She owned it.
“It felt so great,” she says. “When I saw that finish line, I was so happy. It was an amazing feeling.”
And for a family — fiercely united and waiting for her at the finish line — these were not miles taken for granted. When Tina saw her daughter, there were no words, just hugs.
“When she crossed the finish line, everything from this past year flashed in front of me,” Tina says. “From where she was and all the therapy and work she had to endure, to this moment, of just watching her enjoy what she loves most. She’s running again – she’s truly running again. Sometimes, I just can’t believe how far she’s come.”
She added, “Yes, she may be a miracle, but she’s worked darn hard for every bit of it.”
If you look at the meaning of the turquoise shirt and flower in the Fellow Flowers movement, you’ll know why Tina surprised Makayla with them this past week.
The explanation for the turquoise flower reads: “I have the will, the determination and the courage to defy the odds … and inspire. My challenges have made me a fighter — a survivor. They will not define me or confine me. I believe in me and my potential. And I’m going to succeed because I’m brave enough to think I can.”
A miracle, indeed.
The Journey Continues
Today marks an incredible victory for the Mayo family, but they all acknowledge, the fight is not over.
“We’ll take these good days and the small victories, but we also know there is still more to do.”
In the coming months, uncertainty still looms, and Makayla, in many ways, is still an unknown factor. Her doctors continue to monitor her progress closely. This summer she will return to the University of Michigan hospital to assess the narrowing of her internal carotid artery. Tina and Tom are trying not to think about it.
Makayla, however, wastes no time living in the moment and chooses to be optimistic. “Positive thoughts,” she’ll say, looking at her mom. “I just try not to think about it.”
Defiance, in its best form.
These days, while she has returned to running, she still has difficulty with various tasks, understanding and managing her emotions and her short-term memory is not what it used to be. Thanks to months of rigorous therapy, she’s becoming more and more capable and independent. And for Tina, it’s a new phase of trying to figure out when – and if – she can scale back her protective instincts.
But Makayla may not give Tina too much choice in the matter.
During a recent walk together, they found themselves near Lake Superior and decided to walk out on to its infamous break wall. “After just a little while, I was ready to turn back,” says Tina. “But Makayla wanted to keep going. She wanted to reach the lighthouse. Of course, the entire time I’m thinking of about a million reasons I shouldn’t be allowing this.”
But in those moments, Tina channels the newfound carefree spirit of her daughter, and marches forward.
“Yes, she has survived, but that’s not enough. She also needs to live. She could seize in our living room or she could seize out on the break wall. I can’t control that – but I can give Makayla those moments of freedom that I know she needs. It’s scary – of course – but we can’t live in fear. That is just not living.”
These days, the Mayo family is enjoying the little victories, like a schedule that no longer includes hours and hours of therapy. Even with three teenagers in the house, they now spend more family time together, just enjoying each other’s company. They cherish and appreciate the good days. They’re finding their rhythm and settling into their own pace, realizing this journey may not have a finish line.
To be sure, Makayla has more races in her sights and more miles to enjoy.
The Miles for Makayla Facebook page, though not as active these days, still exists. You can scroll the hundreds of photos, messages and prayers, and you can feel the presence of a community fiercely united. And even though the spotlight doesn’t come naturally for the Mayo family, they still welcome and appreciate the well wishes of their community.
If you’re left wondering how you can let the Mayo family know you’re behind them, here’s one idea. Put on your shoes, step outside, breathe the fresh air, and log a mile or two. If there is indeed a prayer in every mile – which Tina, still to this day believes there is – than let us run.
Let us never stop running our Miles for Makayla.
To the Mayo family,
THANK YOU for allowing us to share your story. It has been a life-changing privilege and honor. The resilience of your family and the community that surrounds you is breathtakingly powerful. We are forever changed by this experience. And Makayla, you truly are a miracle.
Mel, Heather and Tori