Stays upbeat despite difficult journey

As school counselor, Karam rolls in as super hero to inspire students

Young woman does not allow physical limitations to keep her from helping others
By Mark Haskell | Aug 02, 2019
Courtesy of: Monica Karam From left, Stephanie Tardiff, Monica Karam and her husband, Jason.

Warren — As a school counselor at South School in Rockland, Monica [Tardiff] Karam starts her school year for the younger students different than most.

“I put on a superhero cape and a superhero mask and I wheel in and I tell them I’m kind of like a superhero here at school and I’m here to help you.”

The wheelchair often comes with questions from the youngsters, but Monica, with her bright, infectious smile, tells them plainly:

“I tell them I had surgery when I was younger and that my legs don’t work as well as their legs and I need help.”

Monica, now 32, is about to begin her eighth year as a school counselor in Regional School Unit 13. She always has had deep-rooted aspirations to help others. In fact, originally, she dreamed of being a paramedic.

But, after an almost cruel twist of fate as a 15-year-old girl, she suddenly was leaning on others for the same reason.

"A life-changing event"

Then, Monica Tardiff was a sophomore at Brewer High School in 2002. As a flyer and tumbler on the school’s cheering squad, she was an integral part in helping the Witches win the Eastern Class A championship in back-to-back seasons.

“When I first started coaching at Brewer she was in middle school” said coach Kristi Reed, who then was the school’s varsity coach and has gone on to win nine state titles between Brewer and Hermon. “She was one of those kids that I couldn’t wait to get up to high school. She was a little flyer, a great tumbler and just one of those kids that everybody loved.”

"Cheerleading was her sport," said Brewer fall cheering coach Jenny Corneil. "[She] always [had] a keen eye for great choreography and was a flyer for the Brewer Witches. Her work ethic for someone her age was refreshing. She always pushed her self to more than just her best. She was funny and kind like she is to this day."

However, during her freshman year, Monica began to feel lower back pain.

“I went to the [emergency room] and they said I had a slight curve in my back,” she said.

That slight curve, after being referred to a spinal doctor, turned out to be bigger than originally diagnosed. Most spines are in the shape of the letter I. Monica’s, was in the shape of the letter S.

S, as in scoliosis, which became the new diagnosis.

“The top curve [in my spine] was 34 degrees and the bottom curve was like 55 [degrees],” she said. “The doctor said they start putting [back] braces on kids at 25 degrees, but I was way past that. So they said I needed a posterior fusion, which means they’d put rods in my back to straighten it.”

She theorizes it went unnoticed for so long due to the fact that the two curves “kind of offset each other, so I didn’t really look crooked.”

She had posterior fusion surgery on April 9, 2002 — which involves having two metal rods implanted along her spine — and began physical therapy at the hospital over the following days.

“I stood up, did a small walk around the hospital room, everything’s going great,” she said. “I sat back down and at that point, everything was still intact.”

“And then [a few hours later] I couldn’t move my right toes. And they felt really cold.”

As the pain medication wore off, the ice cold sensation continued to move up from her feet, to both her legs and to her torso and, the decision was made to take the rods out “because they thought it might have been stretching my spine.”

Surgery to take the rods out was performed April 11, while a blood clot was taken off her spine in the process. A third surgery was performed hours later to remove a second blood clot.

The clots caused a spinal epidural hematoma, which, by definition, is a collection of blood in the potential space between the dura and the bone, along the spinal canal, with significant bleeding potentially leading to, in Monica’s case, neurological injury and deficit, according to coreem.net.

In essence, following the surgeries, Monica became paralyzed from her 11th thoracic spinal vertebrae — or T11 vertebrae, which is the 11th of 12 vertebrae in the spine — down.

“It’s one of the things they list that is, like, a one percent chance of happening,” she said matter-of-factly.

Monica had been a cheerleader since middle school and also was on the school’s cross-country and outdoor track-and-field teams. In high school, she continued with outdoor track, in addition to cheering.

And, in the blink of an eye, it was over.

Admittedly, at 15 years old, Monica did not understand the severity of the situation. “I was always like, ‘Oh it will come back, it’ll be OK.’ No one looked at me and said, ‘You have a spinal cord injury, you may not walk again.’ I’ve always been the type to just take what happens and just go with it.”

She was saddled with a riser cast — a body cast that spanned from just below her neck to her stomach — to stabilize her spine. After that, she wore a plastic brace for a year.

Monica admitted she felt “different and felt jealous” in high school that there was much she was missing, but her close-knit group of friends — many of whom were teammates on the cheering squad — helped her through the process.

“Friends stuck around,” she said. “I was very lucky in that way. They would pick me up and we’d to go the mall. When the mall was a thing. It’s not really a thing anymore. They’d pick me up and take me to cheering practice so I could watch. I would not have been able to work through things without a support system.”

“You coach these kids, but they’re kind of like your own,” said Reed. “She was great for us on the floor, but, this was a life-changing event for her.”

“It certainly set us back as a team, but the girls rallied around her.”

"In true Monica fashion, her chest cast and wheelchair did not stop her from wanting to be part of the squad, especially her senior year," said Corneil. "She would come to practice and we figured out together how to get her and her wheelchair on and off the bus for the away games. She did not miss a beat."

In another example of Monica's fortitude, as a senior prior to the final home football game of the season, where seniors typically present roses to their parents, Corneil recalled her and Monica practicing in the Brewer High School hallways for her to slowly, but surely, walk that rose to her mother.

"I wheeled her out to the field and when her name was called to honor her mom ... she did it," she said. "[It] may have only been about six to eight steps, but she walked that rose to Stephanie. One of the proudest moments as a coach I have ever experienced."

Another bump in road

Through it all, Monica graduated high school in 2004 and went to the University of Maine in Orono, where she received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and child development in 2009.

It took her five years to get through her bachelor’s program. During her sophomore year of college, after years of largely smiling through her ordeal, she was diagnosed with, understandably so, anxiety and depression.

“That happens when you don’t deal with your emotions or you don’t talk about them,” she said. “So I think at that point, I started talking about it more and letting myself be angry and be sad. It was hard for me, but I gave myself permission to grieve the loss.”

That summer, she had another surgery, this time in Philadelphia, for pseudoarthrosis, where the rods would be put back in to stabilize her spine. During the surgery, the doctor determined her condition was worse than originally anticipated, and would require a second surgery, this time an anterior lumbar fusion, to further correct the spine’s alignment.

Then, after returning home to Maine, she experienced complications and was rushed to the hospital for a plural effusion, a buildup of fluid between her lungs and chest.

Two major surgeries and a significant follow-up procedure in the span of three weeks. And a full college workload awaiting her arrival.

A daunting task for the most optimistic of people, but she persevered and not only got her bachelor’s, but graduated with her master’s in 2012 in education with a concentration in counselor education.

After graduation, Monica’s first and only interview was for a school counselor position open at the newly-formed Oceanside High School West in Thomaston, for eighth- and ninth-grade students.

Then principal Larry Schooley, who is now the IEP coordinator for RSU 13, considers Monica "one of my best hires."

"I have been involved in special dducation for a good part of my life so when we interviewed Monica the wheelchair wasn‘t an issue," he said. "The things we liked about Monica were her enthusiastic, positive, can-do attitude. We knew there were going to be kids at the 8/9 school that would need some serious guidance with life issues. We felt that Monica’s personal history would help her to understand and relate to kids having a rough time of it. As a matter of fact, although she had great relationships with all of her students, her specialty ended up being with some of the more challenging boys at the school. She was really able to get them to open up and share their difficulties. Monica was also a very positive influence in the overall culture of the school."

"We were each other's person."

Monica’s mettle was tested often, but she rarely, if ever, complained. And that stoic demeanor came from her mother, Stephanie Tardiff.

“My mom had a lot of health issues,” she said. “She was a Type-1 diabetic. She had Turner’s syndrome. I think watching her, I never saw her upset, sad, mad about her day-to-day health needs. And I think that kind of shaped me and how I reacted to what happened to me.”

Stephanie was, also, as a 1970 Brewer High School graduate, incredibly supportive of her daughter’s athletic escapades. And why should she not?

Doctors had long told Stephanie she could not get pregnant. Until, of course, it was revealed that she was so, into her third trimester.

“With Turner’s syndrome, you’re not supposed to be able to get pregnant,” said Monica. “So, I guess, I’m a miracle.”

Interestingly enough, Monica did not begin her short career as a cheerleader until seventh grade. Basically on a whim.

“The only reason I started was because I taught myself how to do a back handspring in my living room on a mattress,” she said. “And all my friends were like, ‘You should be a cheerleader.' "

Monica relented at first as it “was really not my thing.” But, she went to tryouts in middle school and made the “A” team and “kind of just took off from there.”

“My mom always put me into sports growing up,” she said. “I was always on the Brewer Rec. teams. Every team they had, I was doing it.”

Monica’s mother was never a cheerleader, but had a background in gymnastics, and quickly got her enrolled in cheer camps.

Stephanie enjoyed her role as a cheer mom, so much so that years after Monica graduated, she would still regularly attend school athletic events. “Even when I wasn’t there she just continued to go to games. Basketball games, football games, [cheering] competitions...”

Monica now lives in Warren, where she and her husband, Jason, have a three-year-old son, Calvin.

Monica and Stephanie remained close until Stephanie suffered a stroke and fell, and later died from a combination of the stroke and a traumatic brain injury in January of 2018 at 65 years old.

Monica said the weight of that loss was more traumatic than any of her surgeries. Put together.

“Growing up it was just her and I,” she said. “We were each other’s person. It was really, really hard.”

Reed said Stephanie “was probably one of the most supportive moms I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.”

“She was a single mom [and] she had a lot of health issues,” said Reed. “Her mom did a great job of being very supportive of Monica, but she was expected to have a good attitude. She was taught to be grateful for what she does have.”

Mom's name lives on

Stephanie was a Witch, through and through. So much so that, in her will, in lieu of flowers, she asked for donations to the Brewer Witches cheering program. Monica said the money is “used for cheerleaders that may not have enough money to purchase what they need.”

“Growing up we were low income, and that program definitely helped us out,” she said.

While the loss of her mother was significant, her name now lives on as Brewer High School this past year hosted the inaugural Stephanie Tardiff Memorial Cheer Invitational competition.

Corneil was the driving force behind making the tournament a reality.

"I wanted to honor her by changing our annual event to the Stephanie Tardiff Memorial Cheering Invitational," said Corneil. "If she were still with us she would probably be mad as she didn’t like to be the center of attention but I know that she is up there somewhere and feels honored and loved."

While Monica said her mother “wouldn’t want people to make a fuss over her,” she said the idea that her mother’s name would be even more so synonymous with Brewer cheering “was really exciting.”

Corneil said Stephanie always was in the stands at Brewer events "decked out in her orange and black mittens and her favorite Brewer cheering hat." After Stephanie's funeral, Monica gave that hat to Corneil, which she now wears to games.

Monica said the inaugural invitational, held on Friday, Jan. 18 at Brewer High School, "was packed."

“It was surreal to see all these t-shirts with my mom’s name on them and they spoke about her at the competition and I handed out the awards,” she said. “It was awesome."

Physical, mental strength perseveres

While the consensus was Monica would never walk again, she has never been one to rest on her laurels. She visited Hybrid Fitness in Thomaston last summer and began a training regimen with the goal being to work on improving day-to-day movements and core strength. Slowly, but surely, she has made progress.

“I remember helping her up the stairs to the building,” said Hunter Grindle, owner of Hybrid Fitness. “And I really didn’t know what to think. I hadn’t worked with anybody in that capacity.”

Grindle said one of his goals for Monica, would be for her to walk down the sidewalk of Thomaston’s business block without her walker as “she wanted to be more independent and not always be reliant on her wheelchair.”

“She got stronger. At a rapid rate," he said.

“I worked with him for a couple months,” said Monica. “At first he hadn’t worked with someone like me so he did some of his own research and came up with new ways for me to strengthen my legs. And he would get really excited, because I’d come back the following week and be able to do something I wasn’t able to do the week before. It was really nice to work with someone that was excited, maybe more excited than myself, to see progress.”

“She would come in for her session and maybe I’m having a down day,” said Grindle. “Here she comes in, doing what she can to get up the stairs with a big smile on her face. How can’t I smile? She’s amazing and she always comes in with a great attitude.”

“They said it was unlikely I would ever walk again,” said Monica with a grin. “But I did.”

Now, she hopes to volunteer locally at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. She wants to involve her son, Calvin, as well, as her mother did with her, and impart “the importance of being kind to everyone [and that] it feels good to do good things.”

“My mom did the foster grandparent program through Penquis up in Bangor,” said Monica. “Then she decided to do the senior companion program, where she got matched with an elderly person. And she loved it and that gave her a sense of giving back and that was really important to her.”

With the school year approaching, Monica is preparing to put her superhero mask and cape back on. And, she plans to likely field the same questions from incoming students about her wheelchair.

“It definitely sparks conversation about differences [and] that we treat everybody with respect,” she said. “Even if, on the outside, you look a little bit different.”

After all, not all heroes wear capes. But, some do.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Christine M Starrett | Aug 04, 2019 11:23

What an inspiration to all who read this!! “How can’t I smile” my new favorite comment! How can one not read about Monica and feel empowered. Do the best you can, be the best you can and always support those you love. Listen and encourage. We need more Mom’s like Stephanie and more people in our communities like Monica. Sorry I never met your Mom, but one day I may have the pleasure of meeting you! Your a true inspiration!



Posted by: Deborah A McKenney | Aug 03, 2019 06:04

Monica and her family are an inspiration to all ! I'm looking forward to being part of the So. School team this year !



Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Aug 02, 2019 13:07

Awesome, Possum!   WOW!! Just what was needed to make my day!!! Keep 'em coming. Love and hope will win EVERY time!!



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