SIERRA VISTA — The morning of May 13 should have been like any other hiking trip to Ramsey Canyon for Mahkyla Howes and her friends. Instead, it turned into a near-death experience that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Howes knew the fall was bad when she heard her friend Ryan Tarango whispering to himself as he held her up — she couldn’t support herself and winced in pain after every move she made. Tarango was the one who was always calm and composed, but that day he was nervously holding Howes, who just fell 25 feet off a small cliff.
“I heard him whispering to himself, ‘It’s going to be OK’ over and over,” Howes said. “I knew he didn’t want me to hear him because he was so scared.”
What sent her to the hospital was a “freak accident.”
Howes went hiking with a couple of friends and ventured slightly off trail. She attempted to scale a tall rock face and nearly made it to the top before she lost her grip and plunged to the bottom.
“It felt like a million years and three seconds, all at the same time,” she said, remembering the fall.
She twisted and tumbled through a tree until she hit the ground. The fall left her with one fractured vertebrae along with a shattered vertebrae in her lower spine.
She was in excruciating pain and could not move her legs.
For the first time in her life, Howes was afraid she might die.
Martha Knurr, one of Howes’s hiking friends, called for help.
“It felt like forever for the rescue team to get there,” Knurr said.
For Jared Haros, a paramedic and firefighter with five years for the Fry Fire District, the rescue was his first-ever technical mission. As he recalls, rescue efforts were challenging because Howes was in so much pain, which it turn made it difficult to move her.
“So, we had to make a decision at that point,” he said. “With other resources coming in about 25 minutes, we had to decide whether we were going to continue to leave her on that rock face, or if we were going to move her to the trail.”
At that point, Haros and his partner, Dennis Ferrel, a seasoned firefighter and emergency medical technician with Fry Fire District, created a makeshift cradle using a belt to carry Howes over a small stream to a nearby trail.
“We just had to think of ways to keep her back straight while maneuvering over terrain,” he said. “That’s when training and little bit of forethought comes into play.”
At the time of her rescue, paramedics wrote on her thigh with marker as a timestamp to designate when she lost feeling in her legs — it was about 10:25 a.m.
Upon arrival at the hospital, Howes discovered she suffered a serious spinal cord injury. A piece of shattered vertebra in her lumbar region “dented” her spinal cord causing inflammation and subsequent paralysis below the the waist. Along with her spinal injuries, she broke bones in her foot and fractured her pelvic bone.
Doctors said that she may never walk again.
Just over a month after her fall, however, Howes started to regain small movements in her hips and quadriceps.
“We thought that she was going to die because she was so high up,” Knurr said. “It was horrifying going through that and not knowing if she was going to walk again, but she has movement in her thighs and that’s fantastic.”
While receiving treatment in a rehabilitation center in Tucson, Howes talked about some of her concerns and frustrations as she faces the possibility she may be confined to a wheelchair.
Howes said she feels as though she has been robbed of a piece of her identity.
As someone who loves to dance, she isn’t sure when she’ll be able to start dancing again, if at all. For the 21-year-old, that represents a huge part of her life. She’s a ballerina turned hip-hopper and self-proclaimed dance nerd.
“When I talk to my therapist he’s like, ‘well, there’s more to your life than just dancing,’” she said. “Dance was part of my life forever, I’m identified as a dancer in church. In my brain I’m like, ‘why would God give me a gift like that and then take it away?’”
As she focuses on her future and the the possibility she may need to find a “new identity,” Howes dreams of being a sign language interpreter. She is taking classes at Cochise College to satisfy the prerequisites before transferring to a university.
“She hasn’t had to deal with the public or deal with her new schedule, going to school or anything like that,” said Tara Howes, Mahkyla’s mother. “So it’ll be interesting to see how she overcomes that. I know she will because she’s already overcoming all of this. That fall was crazy, but it could’ve been so much worse.”
For now, Howes wants to help educate other young adults who are new to wheelchairs, either through a blog or YouTube channel.
As a young paralyzed woman, Howes said there isn’t much information available to help transition into everyday life when it comes to dating and being independent, despite the wheelchair.
“I want to be a very independent, well-rounded paraplegic,” she said. “I really want to find some kind of outlet to help others, because it’s not fair for people to feel alone.”
One of her greatest concerns is how society will look at her once she’s in a wheelchair.
Most importantly, Howes wants the world to know that she’s not broken.
She hopes the public can educate themselves about paralysis and understand that people who use a wheelchair live full lives, aside from their injuries.
“Just because their legs don’t work doesn’t mean that their whole body is broken,” she said. “I’m still the same person that I was before my accident."