The Girl Who Cried Platypus

I became physically disabled at age 11. The word ‘platypus’ helped me feel like I was a normal kid.

classroom of students Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

When I think of my childhood, I think of the word ‘platypus’.

Which is weird, probably.

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But for an entire year, ‘platypus’ was my escape: the one thing that made me feel like I was living a normal, adolescent life.

In 2009, I was paralyzed from the waist down at just 11 years old after a freak accident during a soccer game. When I was finally released from the hospital, I was cleared to go back to middle school. But first, I had to meet with my parents, teachers, and doctors to ensure the school’s staff knew how to accommodate and take care of a student in a wheelchair.


So it was me, all my sixth-grade teachers, my doctors, and my parents. My math teacher, Ms. Monaco, asks my doctor, “What if Mackenzie gets overwhelmed or panicked or depressed during class and needs time to herself?”

I was confused. Here I was, sitting in my wheelchair, completely unaware I was experiencing trauma. I had no idea why I’d ever need time to myself during school; I was just happy to see my classmates again after a long bout in the hospital.

But my doctor responds: “That’s completely normal. I recommend you come up with a code word that Mackenzie can say during class, so you know to send her down to the nurse’s office so she can have time to herself.”


And my teacher is like, “Great, what word should we use?” My doctor replies: “Well, I recommend you use a word that doesn’t usually come up in everyday conversation, so when you hear it, you know exactly what’s going on.”

Ms. Monaco pauses for a while and says:

“Great, we’ll use ‘platypus’.”

I giggle uncontrollably, as 11-year-olds do. At that point, I never thought I would ever use my hilariously named ‘platypus’ escape.

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I go back to school the next day, and everything goes off without a hitch. I get through the first few school days without even considering uttering my secret word.


Then comes the math test.

We’re given a math test at the end of my first week back. I look at the exam and realize I know none of the answers. Not even one. (Which makes sense, given I had just missed months of school undergoing inpatient physical rehabilitation.) I sit there for a bit, panicking … until I realize:

I can platypus my way out of this.

I wheel up to Ms. Monaco, and I say “hey Ms. Monaco… platypus.” Her eyes widen, and she whispers, “Oh, yes, of course! Go to the nurse’s office!”

I wheel to the nurse’s office and exclaim “platypus!” The nurse says, “Of course, right this way” and leads me to a large, dark room with a bed. She explains how I have the whole room to myself, door closed, for as long as I need.


So I do what any sixth-grader would do. I lay down, I pull out my Nintendo DS, and I play Sims 3 until the end of the day.

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And I never had to retake that math test! At that moment, I discovered what would become my favorite school activity: the Great Platypus Escape.

I was just platypussing my way through the sixth grade. Almost every day, I’d wheel up to a teacher of mine and say “platypus”, and then I’d go to the nurse and play the Nintendo DS I smuggled in my backpack. Never once did a teacher have me re-do the schoolwork I missed while I was hiding away, playing Sims, giggling in the dark.


Once, I remember thinking, while I was laying in the room reserved for me and only me: “I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I get to play my DS instead of doing schoolwork, just because I’m paralyzed? That’s a pretty good deal.”

What amazes me about being so young is that youthful innocence: the innocence that can make the best out of any bad situation. I was so happy because of one word, even though, looking back on it, that should’ve been the worst year of my life. But it wasn’t. I was young and happy — and kind of manipulative — but I was genuinely happy.

Looking back on my experiences 11 years later, I can’t help but feel grateful. I’m just so grateful for the people who cared enough about me to know that I needed that escape — that ‘platypus’ — even when I didn’t know I needed it. And I’m really grateful for youth. And childlike innocence. And Nintendo. And Platypuses (or is it platypi?)

I was in a wheelchair at age 11, experiencing intense and life-changing trauma, but I got to feel like just another normal kid.


Mackenzie Saunders is a disabled storyteller, writer, and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. Mackenzie has been featured in USA Today, The Moth, the Today Show, Bar Flies, and Arizona's Storyline Slam.