ST. LOUIS — Mariya Powers hit her head when she dived into the shallow end of a swimming pool last summer in Nashville.
"I remember that I couldn't stand up," she said. Two medical students swimming in the pool pulled her out and were able to restart her breathing.
She'd broken two bones in her neck, and she was paralyzed.
Before the accident, Mariya, 12, played volleyball, softball, basketball, track and field. Her grades were good. She looked forward to high school sports. She planned a career as a gynecologist.
"I woke up in the hospital and I thought, 'What am I going to do now?'" Mariya said.
"She was getting to the point where she was thinking there was nothing she could do," said Tanya Greer- Powers, Mariya's mother. "She was looking for things she could do before. But she was an athlete."
Two weeks after the accident, Mariya arrived at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
A ventilator helped her breathe. A therapist detected a twitch in Mariya's right forearm, and Mariya could move her head.
Those were places to start the rebuilding.
Experts on spinal cord injuries say the old model of writing off people is obsolete.
Repairing the damage still isn't possible, but technology has picked up where medicine has left off, said David Gray, associate professor of occupational therapy and neurology at Washington University School of Medicine.
"Computers have voice entry, wheelchairs are much improved, most buildings are accessible, school programs are better integrated, curb cuts. ..." Quadriplegics drive vans, work conventional jobs and attend conventional schools, Gray said.
Julie Gant, an art therapist with Children's Hospital, sought to help Mariya reboot her life. Gant introduced Mariya to mouth painting.
"At first, I went, 'What?'" Mariya said. "I don't know if I wanted to do that."
Even Mariya thought painting would be little more than sloshing meaningless blotches onto a paper with a pendulum of a paint brush.
Yet, her sense of adventure prompted her to try it.
A perfect circle
With a brush between her teeth, an idea in her mind, she painted a picture. It began as a perfect circle.
"It was a complete accident," she said, laughing. She added stars and a moon.
She painted more. "She got to where she could talk and paint at the same time," Gant said.
Gant next introduced Mariya to volunteers with the Project Picasso program at Children's Hospital.
They're students, mostly in art-related majors, from area universities. Project Picasso is for children with neurological problems and cancer. Sometimes, the children just need a break.
"I don't look at it like working with them," said Kris Lantzy, a Project Picasso volunteer and a recent graduate of Lindenwood University in art and psychology.
Lantzy and Mariya became fast friends, especially as they talked. Lantzy held the papers while Mariya painted.
What she can do
"We had time to talk; she started thinking about what she can do instead of what she can't," Lantzy said.
Mariya has returned home. She just started seventh grade in Florissant, Mo.
"They have art classes there," Mariya said.
At home, "I'm her easel," Greer-Powers said. "She doesn't have an easel, so I hold the paper for her."
Among her other works, Mariya painted a birthday card for her grandmother. She wants to do more, and she keeps using up her paint and brushes.
Mariya said she was confused, but she never considered giving up. The movement is improving in her right arm.
"I want to pet my dog. I'm getting better at that," she said.
And she still wants to be a doctor. "Maybe a psychologist," she said.