Meagan Orton ’11, this year’s Miss CofC, had good reason to be out of step – in fact, many good reasons. But there’d never be enough reasons in all the world for her to miss a single beat – even if she couldn’t hear it. Life is just too precious, too short not to be dancing every possible moment you can.

by Jason Ryan
photography by Diana Deaver

When things were at their worst, when she was deaf in both ears, when insomnia turned her into a zombie, when a rash covered her from head to toe, when 50 extra pounds stuck to her 100-pound frame and Dad had to carry her around the house because her joints were so swollen, Meagan Orton opened books by novelist Nicholas Sparks. An unconventional therapy, maybe, but in those pages she found the familiar: beautiful, young Southern girl confronted with an uncertain fate. For Sparks’ female protagonists, assorted obstacles that include cancer, war and class differences threaten to cut life short and thwart true love. In some of these stories, Sparks penned a happy ending, something Orton could cling to. In others, the endings were not so happy. If these books made her sob, it mattered little. She had already been crying for two days.

It was the second straight summer Orton was suffering from a bewildering array of symptoms. In 2008, at the end of her sophomore year, a high temperature and splitting headaches turned out to be viral meningitis, which put her in the hospital for a week and required months of bedridden recovery. This time, in May 2009, a diagnosis was still lacking. All Orton knew was that she woke up one morning before a final exam with no hearing in her right ear. Then she lost all but 20 percent of her hearing on the other side of her head when an infection caused her left eardrum to blow out. Doctors were hoping she could regain hearing in both ears, but were making no promises. Stay still, they’d tell her during near-daily appointments as she lay on a table, her father holding her hand, waiting for them to inject steroids directly into her eardrum in an effort to jump-start her hearing. Then, after performing some tests, the doctor would confirm what was already obvious to Orton: She was still deaf.

Some of Orton’s friends say she reminds them of the characters in Sparks’ books. In that they mean she is friendly, polite, beautiful, smart and well liked, and she possesses a certain innocence, which is not to be confused with naiveté. Senior Sallie Clark, a classmate and fellow Zeta Tau Alpha sorority sister, says Orton’s “always been sweet. I’ve never seen her mad or heard her say an ugly word about anybody.” Another friend and sorority sister, Farah Moustafa ’10, describes Orton as “a little offbeat, but you love her for it.”

The novels Orton chose to speed through during those weeks of insomnia and deafness were as much a case of personal preference as they were practical. She was bored, but couldn’t hear television or music. She also had no one to talk to for half her waking hours, since everyone else was sleeping. Sudden hearing loss, Orton
says, is like having your world turned off. She desperately wanted
it flipped back on, even if life was going to be different, and possibly muted.

After the second day without hearing, Orton stopped crying, and vowed not to feel sorry for herself. She chatted with other deaf people on the Internet and investigated the availability of sign language classes. She started reading her family members’ lips. She was determined to script herself a happy ending. In time, she’d validate a truth she already knew: Perseverance, hope and faith pay off. She’d also embark on new adventures, including one that involved donning a tiara and sporting a white sash emblazoned with “College of Charleston.”

In nearly every way, Orton seems a little too good to be true. As a youngster, she argued with her mom about her bedtime because she wanted to study more. At Stratford High School in Goose Creek, S.C., she helped organize pep rallies that recognized academic all-stars instead of athletic champs, and she made a habit of meeting a new person each day and sitting with strangers in the lunchroom. She was captain of the cheerleading squad, nabbed the coveted role of Juliet in the school play, was a straight-A student and graduated sixth in a class of more than 600 students. She also earned a superlative from her peers as the “Best Girl to Take Home to Your Parents.”

Her wholesomeness could be the source of some good-natured teasing from friends and family. Her brother-in-law, for example, offered some friendly advice before she headed off to the Honors College: “When you get to college, you will get a B at some point. When you do, we’ll get you some counseling.”

Despite her mother’s protests, Orton began burning the candle at both ends as soon as she arrived at the College, deciding to rush a sorority, audition for a play, dance and more. A typical day consisted of class, attending rehearsal, sorority obligations and studying until 1 or 2 a.m. Not that she really minded.

“I’ve never had free time,” she says half-jokingly. “I’ve had to schedule fun.”

Once the play was finished, she was diagnosed with mono. Considering the frenetic pace she kept, the illness was no surprise to her mother, Cindy Orton, who works as a nurse at the Medical University of South Carolina. Besides, when hadn’t Meagan been sick?

According to Cindy, there were red flags about her daughter’s health and “sluggish immune system” since she was born six weeks premature. At 8 months of age, after Hurricane Hugo killed power to the Orton home and their supply of frozen breast milk spoiled, Meagan had a severe allergic reaction to the formula Cindy substituted in her diet, requiring a visit to the hospital. As a child she suffered ear infections and upper respiratory infections galore, requiring tubes to be put in her ears. At age 6, she had an eardrum reconstructed. She had her tonsils removed, as well as her adenoids. She also had two sinus surgeries.

“Doctors,” says Cindy Orton, “would tease that she was the EN&T poster child.”

There was a broken ankle, then a compression fracture in her spine after a competitive cheerleading accident during her senior year of high school. It seemed like just about everything in Orton’s body could be broken, save her spirit. She had endured years of taunting from middle school classmates who picked on her for being small and wearing braces and coke-bottle glasses. The thick lenses on her glasses magnified her blue eyes so much her classmates mean-spiritedly called her Tweety Bird.

By high school, however, Orton’s awkward appearance had given way to beauty. Ugly duckling (or yellow cartoon canary) no longer, she now beamed a big, straight smile, flashed the same big blue eyes (but without glasses) and exhibited her perpetually bubbly personality. Her body betrayed little of the myriad health problems she had experienced as a kid, all the incisions, infections and surgeries she’d endured.

It seems silly to focus on illness when talking about Meagan Orton, since the blond 21-year-old radiates youth, health and beauty. But, like anyone who’s been humbled by illness, her regular medical problems have figured considerably in her development and the arc of her young life. Illnesses are distractions for someone with goals, and severe illnesses molest go-getters like thieves, threatening to rob them of their dreams and possibly steal life itself.

As Orton, her family and her doctors struggled for weeks to understand her deafness and other symptoms, mother and daughter both had their own breaking points, when all seemed lost. These were brief moments, but honest ones, when fears were bared, no longer hidden by the optimism and hope that were so natural to Meagan, the former cheerleader, and Cindy, the nurse.

For Meagan, it occurred after staying by her sister’s side all night as she gave birth, making Meagan an aunt, though one incapable of hearing the newborn’s wail. Overwhelmed with emotion, she later turned to her mother and asked a tough question: “Do you think I’ll be able to hear my own children?”

For Cindy, who, nearly 20 years earlier, helped her husband overcome a grim diagnosis of testicular cancer, the moment came after witnessing Meagan walk around the house like a stick for weeks, after seeing her shake uncontrollably until she took enough Valium to calm down, when a doctor – listening to the Ortons discuss Meagan’s swollen joints, rash, bloating and trembling – suggested she be tested for lupus. It was something the 33-year nursing veteran thought she’d never hear.

“I lost it. I just broke down. I just bawled my eyes out,” she says. “I can’t be brave anymore. Game over. It’s done.”

Since she was little, Orton has liked to dance. As a young girl, she had to be pulled off the stage. When she once badly hit her head before a performance, the show still went on. When she broke her ankle, she tap-danced in a pink cast. At the College, she’s taken a dance class almost every semester with professor Ashley Stock, who says Orton is one of the hardest working students she’s taught.

“You don’t find people like her that often, who are positive, upbeat and give you 100 percent in everything they do,” says Stock.

During the fall 2009 semester, Stock welcomed Orton back to class, though this time her student was sticking close to the front of the class to make sure she was within earshot. Orton had received a hearing aid for her left ear – the one damaged from infection – over the summer. She remained deaf, however, in her right ear, a victim of unexplained sudden hearing loss. For this ear, doctors told her, a hearing aid would be no help. Fortunately, Orton was not diagnosed with lupus, and the unnerving symptoms she experienced in May 2009, which included swelling and a head-to-toe rash, were attributable to a rare allergic reaction to the steroids she was taking. These symptoms ceased upon her ending the steroid treatment.

Doctors advised Orton to take the fall semester off, but the psychology major refused, insisting on at least taking a reduced courseload. Midway through the semester, she visited the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., for more doctor visits. While there, she received a phone call from her sorority sisters. “Surprise,” they told her, “we entered you into the Miss College of Charleston Pageant. You have four days to prepare.”

Though Orton is girly, she’s not prissy. Her pageant experience, too, was limited, though she did come out on top of the single contest she entered in high school. Displaying her trademark enthusiasm, she shrugged off her novice status and went on a frantic shopping spree after leaving the Mayo Clinic, snatching up dresses and outfits for the contest.

Returning to Charleston, she sought out Stock, who – in an hour between classes – taught her a new dance routine, Bob Fosse’s short theatrical piece “Razzle Dazzle.” Choosing to dance was a bold choice for the talent portion of the pageant, considering she was deaf in one ear and dependent upon a hearing aid in the other. Orton, though, was at ease, glad to be breaking free of the restrictions imposed by her illnesses.

“I was so excited to be on stage dancing,” she says. “I just decided I would have fun with it and represent my story the best I could.”

The judges were sufficiently impressed with her performance in the pageant, with one commenting that her interview went superbly, as Orton’s answers were candid and refreshing. They voted her Miss College of Charleston, and Orton’s family joined her on stage to celebrate. Her mother, for the second time in six months, started bawling.

This July, Orton will compete to become Miss South Carolina. For this pageant, she’s getting more than four days of preparation, practicing a new dance routine and working with a nutritionist and trainer. She’s also adjusting to having hearing again on the right side of her head. In December, she underwent surgery to embed a bone-anchored hearing aid (Baha), otherwise known as a bionic ear, in her skull.

Meagan Orton ’11

Ask Orton to pull back her hair, and you’ll see a small, titanium knob projecting from behind her right ear. On this knob snaps the Baha, a small box specially colored “Champagne Blond” to match her hair. Unlike conventional hearing aids, which transmit sound through the ear canal, the Baha allows Orton to hear by conducting sound vibrations passing through her skull to her inner ear. The Baha also contains an audio jack that allows her to more or less plug a cellphone or iPod directly into her head.

Orton will not talk about her medical problems unless you ask about them. Her friends say it’s not her style to conjure pity or to project her problems onto others. That, however, is about to change. As part of her public service platform for the Miss South Carolina Pageant, Orton is determined to educate the general public about sudden hearing loss, which affects about 4,000 Americans each year, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

“I’m supposed to be a voice for other people like me who are hearing impaired,” she says.

Orton’s victory at the College pageant might make you think she’s adapted to her hearing-impaired existence with minimal difficulty. In some ways, she has, even sometimes using her disability to her advantage. At night she sleeps with her left ear into the pillow and her deaf, right ear pointed into the air, so she’ll be oblivious to roommates arriving home late. When her boyfriend, Austin Rhodes, whom she credits as being extremely supportive during her hearing loss and recovery, shares a story she finds boring, she’ll tease him and ask him to please switch sides and speak into her deaf ear.

Other situations have been more challenging. In class this past year, Orton, who takes much pride in her schoolwork, struggled to take adequate notes. She was also dismayed to receive little compassion from some acquaintances that would not alter their behavior to accommodate her handicap. Very quickly, she
became familiar with the routine struggles endured by those with disabilities, especially people whose disabilities may not be apparent.

“It’s heartbreaking to have someone yell at you because you didn’t get it the first time,” she says. “I understand it’s an inconvenience for you, but it’s an inconvenience for me, too.”

As part of her platform, Orton plans to visit schools and talk to children, encouraging students with disabilities to pursue their dreams at all costs. She also wants to talk to nondisabled students, encouraging them not to shun or ignore those with disabilities. It’s OK, she’ll tell them, to be curious about a classmate’s disability and to ask questions.

Her friends have marveled at how she’s overcome her illnesses and found the time to take on such a challenging new endeavor.

“I think she embodies grace,” says Moustafa, “taking hardships in stride and coming out better for it.”

In July, Orton will perform again before judges, dancing to India Arie’s “Beautiful Flower.” If she previously considered dancing a passion, perhaps now it is also a privilege. Meningitis sapped her strength for months, but she recovered. Her hearing disappeared, but science restored it. Yet there was never a guarantee she’d recover her energy and hearing-enabled rhythm. She just had to believe things would be OK.

When she takes the stage at the Miss South Carolina Pageant, Orton says she’ll do so with confidence. This time, it won’t matter if she gets the crown. Dancing itself is reason for celebration.

“It’s not going to be a dance, it’s going to be a triumph for me,” says Orton. “I’ll be out there dancing, hearing impaired, to a beautiful song.” College of Charleston