Too Stubborn to Die
October 2021 Issue
by Michele Roldán-Shaw
Photos provided by Maggie Deery
“My battle starts every day when I open my eyes, and it doesn’t end until I close them,” said survivor Maggie Deery.
That battle began a decade ago when Maggie was 17. She was at a friend’s house and asked for a ride home from a girl she didn’t know very well, not realizing the girl had been drinking. (Her blood alcohol level was later found to be twice the legal limit.) Maggie crammed into the little two-door car with four others, and there weren’t enough seats so she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Coming out of Indigo Run on Hilton Head Island at 80 mph, they collided head-on with a tree. The driver died on impact, another boy was seriously injured, and Maggie’s life changed forever. Her neck and spinal cord were severed at various places and she suffered a diffused axonal injury with tiny bleeds all over her brain, causing her to be life-flighted to Savannah Memorial in a coma; doctors told her parents to be prepared to care for her in a vegetative state. She went on to spend six months at Shepherd Center, a brain and spinal cord facility in Atlanta, where youth and strong will contributed to her recovery.
“It was very difficult in the beginning,” Maggie recalled. “I would wake up every day and ask who died because I couldn’t remember. I knew something was wrong with me, but the brain injury kind of saved me because I didn’t have the wherewithal to mourn being in a wheelchair.”
Maggie ended up paralyzed from the chest down and without the ability to use her hands, although the brain injury slowly improved. She was determined to not let disability stop her, so she did a lot of speech and vocational therapy, and today she feels she’s done more with her injury than she would have without it. She travels and paints with an adaptive device, has been skydiving and waterskiing, and is currently studying philosophy at Georgia State University Perimeter College. Her favorite thing in the world is snow skiing: She sits in a little seat with two skis on it tethered to somebody by a rope. “I need help with almost everything,” she said. “But life is what you make it; attitude is everything. I cherish my life now because it could end at any second.”
Maggie feels that to get something good, sometimes you have to go through something bad. The relationships with her friends and family were so enriched by the accident that she wouldn’t trade them for anything. This is particularly true of her mom, who is a nurse and has cared for Maggie steadfastly. “She’s been my rock,” Maggie said. “She stayed with me the whole time. The love between us got so strong because of going through something traumatic; it just made us so much more intimate. I couldn’t have done it without her.”
After the accident Maggie felt anxious about getting on the road again, but she reassured herself that the odds of another wreck were slim. Then, one day her ex-boyfriend was driving her wheelchair van when a drunk driver hit them head-on. The seatbelt crushed Maggie’s large intestine and she suffered another traumatic brain injury. “I don’t know if it happened for a reason,” she said, “but I’m alive. I’m blessed to be here, and I need to do something with my life.”
Maggie now works with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) telling her astonishing tale to large groups of people who have gotten DUIs or similar offenses. And they really listen—if she can impact even one person, that may spare somebody the horrors of what she’s gone through. Drunk driving is at an all-time high, Maggie said, admitting candidly that before her own accident she used to do it too. “I wish people wouldn’t take it so lightly,” she lamented.
You can kill someone, kill yourself, or the least of your worries is ending up in jail. But you don’t get a warning for anything—it just happens.
It’s inspiring to talk to Maggie. The fight for survival has given her an uncommonly mature and grounded vibe. “Stuff gets thrown at you in life that you believe you’ll never get past,” she said, “but that’s not how it works. I’m really happy, probably happier than I ever was.”
Pets: boxers Mary Jane and Kodak
Superfan of: Atlanta Braves
Hidden talent: Rattling off the ABCs backward
Favorite way to relax: Sitting outside in the sun for hours (her body temp runs low)
Why she had to #fightlikeagirl: because she didn’t see any other option