A run for his life: Dad completes marathon for son
By Mike Sielski
Waiting for a sign: CB West student Megan Hamlin’s head was crushed under the tire of an SUV while she was sunbathing on a Florida beach. Now her father can only hope she shows some indication of healing, of coming back to him.
By Mike Sielski
Sept. 20, 2000
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The vigil began by 9:15 a.m., as it always does.Mark Hamlin had eaten breakfast in the Brooks Rehabilitation Center cafeteria, taken the elevator up one floor and greeted two patients and two nurses by name before be saw his daughter, Megan, for the first time that Aug. 30 morning. A therapist had wheeled her into the hallway outside her room.
Hamlin is a stout man with a stout demeanor, a former Army Reservist with a deep, husky voice and flecks of gray at his temples.
But she is his little girl, and she has always been a horse whisperer to him. Since her birth, she has been able to soften him, and she still can, without words, from her wheelchair.
He bent down and kissed her left cheek twice, careful not to upset the bag of beige, intravenous food dripping through a tube into her stomach.
"Hey, Meg," he said.
She did not respond. Her blue eyes were open but empty. Her right arm stayed frozen at a right angle across her chest. Her head, wrapped in a strip of Velcro gauze to keep it steady, remained at an odd tilt to the right.
He stroked her nose and her cheek with his finger, trying to coax her into consciousness.
Megan Hamlin its her bed as her father Mark pauses after her therapy session.
For 10 hours that Wednesday, Mark Hamlin was at his daughter's side. He has been there almost every day since June 20, when Megan and her friend Jessica Rowen, juniors at Central Bucks West High School, were run over by a hit-and-run driver as they lay on a St. Augustine, Fla., beach.
The car, identified as a red Toyota 4Runner, hit 16-year-old Jessica first. She sustained torso and head injuries and has returned to her Bedminster home.
Megan, who turns 17 this Saturday, has not come home to Chalfont. The car's tire crushed her head against the sand, inflicting extensive trauma to her brain. She is in a quasi-coma, what her father calls a vegetative state.
Only recently has she begun to breathe on her own again. She has not walked or spoken since the accident, and she responds inconsistently and almost imperceptibly to stimuli from Hamlin and her therapists at Brooks, where she has been for the last seven weeks.
The therapists poke her and pinch her and talk to her, searching for some sign Megan can see them and feel them and hear them. When those sessions are over, Hamlin has his time alone with her, several hours each day.
He talks to her, though she does not talk back. He teases her, though she doesn't laugh. And he kisses her again and again -- on her cheek, on her fingers, on her forehead.
The kisses are vessels of hope he continues giving them to her believes hope will swell inside -- just as rain causes a river to overflow, and she will come back to him. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But, someday, she will. He has to believe that.
“I mean, she’s my only kid,” Hamlin, 44, said. “I’ve just got to keep assuring her how much I love her, how much I care for her, how hard she’s got to fight.”
Before joining the Army at 18, Hamlin worked in a slaughterhouse while he was a student at George Washington High School in Northeast Philadelphia. He got into a teen-age scrape more than once. He was, and in many respects still is, a tough guy, not the sort of man to "focus on his feelings," his younger brother Bruce said.
From the time Hamlin and his wife Anna divorced in 1992, Megan has lived almost exclusively with Hamlin. Anna visits Megan at Brooks at least once a week -- she could not be reached for comment for this story -- but Hamlin gained full custody of Megan last month.
He liked fishing and classic rock 'n' roll. She was a cheerleader and a fan of bubble-gum boy bands, such as Hanson. Their interests were different, but they were as close as could be.
"Their relationship is very special because of the transition the two of them have been through," Bruce Hamlin said of his brother and niece. "They would go up to the mountains a lot, and she would always tease him about the fishing trips he liked to take. It's more or less a case where she kept him in line. She's always kept him in line."
She hasn't spoken to him since Father's Day. He woke up that morning, and she had prepared pancakes, eggs and sausage for him. Later that afternoon, the Rowen family picked up Megan. She was joining them for their two-week vacation in Florida.
Two days later, on June 20, Hamlin was sitting in his 16-foot bass-fishing boat on Lake Nockamixon when his cellular phone rang. It was his girlfriend, Maureen Talley. “Come home," she said. "There's been an accident."
That was the moment his life changed -- relaxing on his boat, his line in the water, staring at an azure sky.
They flew to Jacksonville's Shands Hospital that night.
"And when I walked into that room and saw her there ..." he said.
The impact had "de-gloved" Megan, cutting her face so that one could pull her scalp back from her head. Her right ear and right eyelid had to be reattached surgically. Her face was bloated. Her long, brown-blonde hair had been shaved away. She was almost brain-dead.
Standing near a fountain in front of the rehabilitation center recently, Hamlin remembered the instant he saw his daughter at the hospital.
"I'll never forget it..."
“I didn’t even recognize her …”
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life. She’s strong, man. She’s so strong …”
Then the words stopped, and Mark Hamlin was bawling in the way tough guys aren’t supposed to.
On the walls, mirror and cabinet doors in Megan’s room at Brooks, her father has taped more than 125 get-well letters. One is from China. One is from Mexico. One is from Scotland.
Above Megan's bed are 18 Mass cards and an excerpt from a book called "Faith to Faith" that reads, "Remember that it is faith, not appearances, that makes miracles happen."
Hamlin, it seemed, would have settled for appearances on this day. Megan was "being a putz," he said.
Through her morning physical and speech therapy sessions -- as the therapists put a comb in her hand and showed her how to use it, then touched her left arm and asked her to move it -- Megan had been generally nonresponsive. She exhibited an overt reaction only when a therapist had tapped her on the left shoulder. Her eyes had flitted in that direction.
She has had more than her share of setbacks. When she first received the feeding tube, she threw up the milk-based formula. Excess spinal fluid built up around her brain, compelling doctors to insert a shunt from her head to her abdominal cavity to siphon away the fluid. She is now on four different medications.
Back in Megan's room, Hamlin gave her a pep talk.
"I need you to fight harder," he said to her. "I love you. I love you, sweetheart. Don't give up because I'm not going to give up."
He has gone too far, had too many people reach out, to give up. He has even explored alternative forms of treatment for her, apart from the routine of therapy.
Each afternoon, he takes her to the office of Dr. Thomas Murray. There, Murray and Hamlin slide Megan into a hyperbaric chamber, a 15-foot pod where she breathes pure oxygen for an hour. For there is scientific evidence, according to Murray, that the intake of pure oxygen stimulates the neurons in the brain, which might cause Megan to come out of her coma more quickly.
In the pod, she has shown progress. A turn of the head here, a twitch of the hand there.
"I'm running out of tricks," Hamlin said.
At last count, Megan's medical bills had reached $200,000 -- a total that doesn't include the cost of her stay at Brooks -- and Hamlin's attorneys have said the sum could climb to $5 million.
He can draw on his medical insurance and money raised from community benefits -- a beef-and-beer will be held today in Somerton -- for now. And the corporation he works for -- Safety Kleen, an environmental waste-service company based in Fairless Hills -- continues to pay him his salary while he tends to Megan and lives at the Jacksonville Naval Base.
"They told me, ‘You worry about your daughter. We'll worry about stuff up here,’ ” he said. "They've been awesome."
No one can say, though, how long his worries will last.
"The typical guideline is, you make the most recovery in a year," said Eileen Branham, a physical therapist at Brooks. "Some people take longer to heal. It all depends on the severity of the injury and how the brain is able to compensate for the area that has been injured."
The beach at St. Augustine's Anastasia State Recreation Area is flat. Its only dunes are manmade, part of a "renourishment project" to counteract erosion. The dunes are away from the ocean, back toward the beach's entrance.
Near the water's edge, where Megan and Jessica had been sunbathing and where beach-goers could drive their cars, there are no dunes, no hills -- nothing but shallow tire marks in the otherwise smooth, hard sand.
The beach has been closed to motorists since Aug. 5, when a car struck a 5-year-old girl. A lifeguard said he was not allowed to talk about the accident involving Megan and Jessica. A park ranger said the renourishment project is "one of the reasons" the park has banned cars indefinitely from the beach.
The man suspected of hitting Megan and Jessica, 47-year-old Joseph B. Edmonson of Green Cove Springs, Fla., has been charged with careless driving. He might have his driver's license suspended. Police have said they cannot prove Edmonson intended to drive his 4Runner over the girls, so they cannot charge him with a criminal offense.
"I've tried to imagine that maybe he didn't know he hit them," said Mark Hamlin, who has filed a personal injury claim against the state of Florida and St. Johns County, where the park is located.
"There's no way that I could believe. All this soft sand -- this and that. He knows what happened, and he's going to have to live with that for the rest of his wife.
"He's just a callous son of a bitch."
Edmonson was reached by telephone on Wednesday.
"I am not the guy," he said: "That's all I have to say.”
He hung up.
On Friday, Sept. 1, Megan went through what seemed to be another sluggish morning. Her physical therapy session was uneventful. During speech therapy, Hamlin adopted a stern tone with his daughter.
"Meg," he said. "Move your fingers. Come on. Move your fingers."
He stared at her left hand for five seconds.
He took her back to her room and lifted leer onto her bed. At about 11 a.m., he patted her head.
"I'll be back," he said to her. "It's your rest time."
He leaned in and kissed her on her left cheek.
Megan's head and face were tilted to the right, so when Mark Hamlin finally pulled away from his only daughter, he couldn't see something slight but significant. Something that suggested Megan's morning had been neither sluggish nor uneventful, something that might have filled his heart with hope and showed maybe Megan's heart was filled with hope, too.
The expression on her face had changed.
It might actually have been a smile.
Copyright 2000 The Intelligencer. Reprinted with permission.