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When Melanie Benn isn't helping patients as a social worker for UCSD's Medical Center in Hillcrest, she's in the swimming pool practicing for the Paralympics and other competitions. In September, she competed for medals in Athens against other Paralympians.

Social Worker Earns More
Than Medals at Athens Paralympics

By Paul Mueller | October 11, 2004

The spirit to keep driving forward, to fight rather than falter, even in the face of catastrophe or defeat, is the essence of an Olympian athlete. As Melanie Benn, a social worker at the UCSD Medical Center, plows through lap after lap in the swimming pool, she is buoyed, propelled, by that essence – even after winning three medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

She is swimming, and routinely competes, without her forearms or lower legs, lost almost ten years ago when bacterial meningitis nearly killed her.

Benn, on the beach near Humboldt State University as a first-year student, before she lost her limbs to severe bacterial meningitis.

A photo of her as a new student at Humboldt State, taken before the insidious infection nearly pushed her under, shows a slender, winsome young woman standing among the rough rocks and foamy surf of that northern coast. Today, a busy professional with a master’s degree in social work from UCLA as well as a Paralympian, she retains a winning smile and an athlete’s lean form.

“I started to swim as rehabilitation,” she says. “The water offered freedom, weightlessness. It felt good to move.”

Benn moves around the sixth floor of the Medical Center in Hillcrest smoothly and competently, maneuvering her wheelchair with her prostheses. As a counselor for the center’s HIV and AIDS patients, she’s active with visits, sessions, meetings, planning and follow-up care, including hospice work. At her computer, on the phone, scrawling notes, fielding staff pages and inquiries, the 27-year-old social worker moves through her daily tasks with a swimmer’s fluid grace.

In Athens this year, that fluid style was tested in several relay and individual races, against “pretty tough competition,” she says. Benn rose to the occasion, taking the bronze in the 100-meter freestyle, bronze in the women's 20-point 4x50-meter freestyle, and silver for the 50-meter freestyle – and was the first medallist for Team USA swimmers at the Paralympics.

Benn and teammates won the silver medal in the 4x50 meter free relay at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia.

Benn likes working at the UCSD Medical Center. It’s where, years ago, as she lay in a deathly coma, her limbs were removed to save her life. When she awoke, after two months of unconsciousness, her parents, Ed and Candice, and sister, Jessica, had been prepared by hospital staff to help her adjust. “The hospital and my family were more than supportive,” she says. “We looked forward, and not back.”

Bacterial meningitis, she says, starts with flu-like symptoms, is fast-moving and often fatal. It can roam dorms, barracks, and other crowded living quarters. (The viral form of the disease, according to the National Meningitis Association, while very grave, isn’t as deadly or debilitating as the bacterial form.) A vaccine is available for bacterial meningitis, and Benn and her mother are active advocates for its use – “Mom much more than me,” she says.

Benn was 18 when the swift infection swamped her. Before she swam out of its dark waters, it had taken a kidney as well as her arms and legs. “But my brain had not been affected,” she says. At the urging of her sister and her friends, she started classes at Palomar Community College. “I was a mess,” she says, “still kind of dazed with medication and covered with bandages. But that helped get me going.”

In addition to the Paralympics, Benn also likes competing closer to home. Here she's at the Loma Verde pool for the 2003 United Cerebral Palsy meet.

And she kept going, through a degree in psychology from San Diego State University, a master’s in social work from UCLA, and a position as a social worker for UCSD – a job to which she drives in a specially equipped van.

Benn, a medal-winner in previous Paralympics, has already earned far more than the fleeting notice of this year’s champion or the latest record-holder in whatever sport. Swimming smoothly, strongly, and steadily against the treacherous currents of self-pity and despair, leaving them in her wake, she’s already won the most challenging contest of them all.

 

 


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