How a Utah teen survived an electrical shock, and the struggles that followed

How a Utah teen survived an electrical shock, and the struggles that followed

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gracelyn Wilkinson talks about how she feels helping others overcome their difficulties, onTuesday, July 19, 2022.

On Sept. 3, 2018, when she was 14 and a ninth-grader at Oak Canyon Junior High in Lindon, Gracelyn Wilkinson wrote in an English class notebook that “Today hasn’t been a very eventful day.”

After school that day, something happened that changed Gracelyn’s life, though she doesn’t remember it. Receiving a massive shock of electricity through one’s body will do that.

“I don’t really remember anything except waking up and having searing pain throughout my whole body,” said Wilkinson, now 18. She said she only knows what happened because of what other people have told her.

Today, Gracelyn Wilkinson is dealing with a variety of health problems — issues with regulating her body temperature, and her memory and comprehension, among them — most of them attributable to the effects of electricity on her central nervous system, her family said.

According to Gracelyn and her family, she has developed a sixth sense for knowing when other people are in trouble. And, she said, she has found healing through her passion for music — which is why an upcoming concert to raise money for a new treatment is so close to her heart.

“I know that if [music] can help me as I’m going through my journey, maybe it can help other people,” she said.

Stepping on a live wire

After school that day in 2018, near the start of Gracelyn’s last year in middle school, she was in rehearsal for a Shakespeare competition in Cedar City. She and her classmates were performing a scene from the comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and Gracelyn had one of the main roles.

The school’s theater rehearsal space had recently been converted from a computer lab — and an electrical outlet on the floor had become dislodged, exposing a live electrical wire, according to a lawsuit filed in August 2020 by Wilkinson’s parents against the Alpine School District. The lawsuit is still pending. (A spokesperson for the district did not respond to requests for comment.)

“I walked across the classroom and there was a big boom and a flash,” Gracelyn said. “And I was unconscious on the floor. … [The] only thing I remember is pain, everywhere. It was debilitating, like there was stabbing all through my body.”

In the lawsuit, the family says it doesn’t know how many volts of electricity went through Gracelyn’s body.

Looking back, Gracelyn said, it’s a “blessing” she doesn’t remember more of what happened. But her mother, Amanda, remembers every second, starting with the call she received from Gracelyn’s phone that afternoon.

Because the call came from Gracelyn’s phone, Amanda Wilkinson said, “first, I thought someone was punking me. … I thought, ‘This isn’t very funny.’ But then I heard some mumbling in the background and it sounded like Gracelyn’s voice, but it was like she was having a hard time putting words together.”

Amanda Wilkinson said no one called an ambulance for Gracelyn, and she had to pick her daughter up at school.

Since the accident, Amanda Wilkinson said, the response from the Alpine School District has been “minimal,” with the school giving $5,000 in financial support — which didn’t even cover the cost of Gracelyn’s first trip to the emergency room. The family, her mother said, has “carried the burden of [Gracelyn’s] medical costs ever since.”

The family has racked up more than a million dollars and counting in medical bills, Amanda Wilkinson said.

“It’s been a life-altering injury,” she said, “and we’re still in the middle of it.”

A list of problems

In the first two years after being electrified, Gracelyn spent 12 months in the hospital for various surgeries and complications. She had been resuscitated five times, had open chest surgery, a kidney transplant and brain rehabilitation.

Most of the issues she now faces involve her central nervous system. Things like regulating her body temperature, or balancing her electrolytes, or adjusting to changes in elevation. She has had to relearn to walk multiple times.

She still struggles with things she never had issues with before — such as language, memory, or the ability to comprehend things.

For example, there was a time, shortly after the accident, when a friend brought over a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Amanda Wilkinson recalls Gracelyn looked at the plate and asked if she could have “a circle with those circles on it.”

Gracelyn’s typical day revolves around what her body needs to function at the most basic level. Gracelyn said she takes nearly a dozen medications, including three to just regulate her ability to use the bathroom. She is constantly on a feeding tube, which she refills every six hours. The shock also caused vascular damage, the family said.

She is going through laser therapy and a Rezzimax, a device that is used to control migraines without medication, to prepare her nervous system for rehabilitation.

When Gracelyn was having consistent bad pain days and blacking out from it, her mother said, she looked her daughter in the eyes and said: “Gracelyn, we’ll look the world over until we find solutions for you. I promise you we will keep working until you tell me that you’re done.”

Amanda Wilkinson said she took to researching the after-effects of a massive electrical shock on a child’s body, but cases were rare. “It’s something that a lot of doctors are not skilled or educated on,” she said. (A 2003 study found only 16 children, ages 10 to 15, killed by electrocution over 13 years of records in San Diego and 34 years of records in Adelaide, Australia.)

Through her research, Amanda Wilkinson found the Spero Clinic in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which she described as a place where people go to rehab their nervous systems. Amanda said she considers the regimen there — Mondays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., for four to six months — a sort of last shot at healing some of Gracelyn’s core health issues.

To get Gracelyn to Arkansas, though, the family said they had to raise $70,000 in two months — out of pocket, because insurance won’t cover it.

The power of music

The need to raise money quick led to the “Fight for Light” benefit concert, set for Friday, August 5, at 7 p.m., at Pleasant Grove High School, 700 E. 200 South, Pleasant Grove. Several Utah acts are set to perform at the show, headlined by the indie-rock band Foreign Figures. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children 10 or younger, at fight-for-light.ticketleap.com.

“We wanted to do something that was going to give a gift back,” Amanda said, while being “true to who Gracelyn is and how she’s handled this journey.”

Gracelyn said she has always loved music, particularly musical theater.

“When I started to get sick, something I could always turn to and put all my energy into was music,” Gracelyn said. “I would utilize music therapy a lot in the hospital and everyday life.”

She wrote a song, “Fighter,” which she calls her anthem. She said she wrote it when she was in a “very dark place,” during a hospital stay when COVID-19 restrictions isolated her from her family and medical staff.

The song, she said, is about “how even in those darkest times, you are a fighter and you can lift your head and the light is going to shine.” She added, “I wrote that song because I wanted to believe those words.”

On the outside, Gracelyn looks like any other young coming-of-age woman, with no visible signs of trauma other than the mini backpack she carries with her — which contains the pump that connects to her feeding tube.

Her injuries are, in a way, invisible. She likes to sing, cook and draw henna during her free time.

Gracelyn said the benefit concert and her trip to Arkansas are two of the few things that have given her real hope in a very long time.

A portrait of perseverance

Even though Gracelyn missed more than half of her high school experience, she persevered.

She graduated from Pleasant Grove High School, after having to retake 12 credits she missed while recovering from an infection after her kidney transplant. She spent the first three weeks of her senior year in the hospital.

“I got to the point where I felt like I knew the nurses in the hospital more than I knew my classmates,” she said — but she decided to finish high school with no regrets, finding strength by “finding joy in all the little things.”

Gracelyn recalled the time she was doing her conditioning training on the mountain trail behind her house. She jogged, and pushed herself harder and longer than she ever had since the accident. She veered left and right while doing it, which prompted a biker that passed her angry at her, and accusing her of “goofing off.” Even so, Gracelyn considered it a significant win for herself.

While she was in the hospital, Gracelyn started making warrior bracelets — and so har has donated more than 300 to patients and caregivers, a reminder that they can get through their own battles.

At school, she said, she found herself more aware of ways to share kindness with those around her. She started a weekly “Wednesday lunches” program, where she’d bring people back to her house for lunch.

“One thing that I’ve found to be such a huge blessing is, because of these things I’ve experienced, God has entrusted me in a very different way with some very sacred things,” she said.

She says it’s as if she’s gained a sixth sense.

One story that Gracelyn holds close to her happened at school, after she found out she would need a kidney transplant. She had left her class because she felt sick, and on her way back, she saw a girl crying in the hallway. Overcoming her own anxiety, Gracelyn said, she went up to the girl, whom she did not know, and gave her words of encouragement.

Later that night, the family found out the girl had been planning to take her own life.

A few months later, Gracelyn said, she ran into the girl outside the school, where she was waiting to be picked up. While they chatted, the other girl’s father came out of a car with a service dog, which the girl named after Gracelyn because “she saved her life.”

Both the girl and the father told Gracelyn how her simple act had made a world of difference.

“With this gift of seeing beyond the face that people put on, beyond the words people say, I feel like that’s been one of the biggest things I’ve gained through this [experience],” Gracelyn says.

Gracelyn said she wants to go to college, and that’s another motivation behind going to get treatment in Arkansas. Her plan is to become a child life specialist — a health care specialist who works with families and children at hospitals — because she met one, Lindsay, who changed her life while in the hospital.

Most of all, Gracelyn doesn’t want to be known as the girl who got electrified anymore.

“Arkansas gives me hope to be able to do that,” she said. “[Living] without a feed tube, without having to be super close to the local children’s hospital in case something happens.”

That prospect, she said, is so beautiful for her.

The ‘Fight for Light’ benefit concert, to raise money to send Gracelyn Wilkinson to Arkansas for medical treatment, is Friday, August 5, at 7 p.m. at Pleasant Grove High School, 700 E. 200 South, Pleasant Grove. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children 10 and under, and are available online at fight-for-light.ticketleap.com.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.