When twin sisters Mackenzie and Madison Alber began high school together as freshmen, they wanted to walk across the graduation stage together.
At least that was the goal. However, Mackenzie’s neurological and physical effects from meningitis and a stroke put that dream on hold for at least two years.
As an 18-month-old girl, Mackenzie was diagnosed with meningitis and suffered a stroke in mid-March 2000. She had to go through years and years of therapy just to swallow, eat, talk and walk – all taken-for-granted skills that had to be relearned.
When Madison graduated in 2017 with honors, it was a bittersweet ceremony; Mackenzie was not with her. It would be two more years before her twin sister would overcome great odds and graduate from Westfield High School.
“They look so similar but have led such different physical lives,” commented the twins’ maternal grandmother Cindy Ely of the Southside. “They have stayed emotionally connected in ways we could never imagine.”
The twins are the daughters of Matt and Charity (Ely) Albert, each members of the Class of 1991 at Southport High School. Charity, a top academic student and drum major of the marching band at Southport, is the daughter of longtime Southside educators Cindy and Howard Ely.
Madison, who has completed her sophomore year at the University of Evansville, still wanted to walk with her twin sister. So, Madison went to assistant principal Kevin Scanlon at Westfield High School. The entire administration was enthused.
“Maddie’s idea for her folks to see both twins walk across the stage at the same time was absolutely brilliant, “Cindy Ely said. “Maddie is very much of a quiet-to-yourself type, so when she came to me with her idea, I was astonished, but oh so proud … to us, it was the world.”
She added, “Maddie was determined to make this day extraordinary for her loved ones.”
On graduation day, Madison proudly escorted Mackenzie across the stage to receiver her Certificate of Learning diploma. Westfield teacher/presenter read her name and announced to the crowd to “give it up for Mackenzie!” Applause, cheers and tears followed.
Graduation day 2019 was the continuation of a long journey that began with the birth of the twins; their daughter’s first babies and the Ely’s fourth and fifth grandchildren.
When the twin girls were a year old, the main difference was that Madison was righthanded and Mackenzie was lefthanded.
A few months later in mid-March 2000, the twins contracted severe viral infections that required antibiotics. Mackenzie’s condition worsened within days and she was diagnosed with meningitis. Later she was taken to Riley Hospital for Children where they met with an infectious disease specialist who was comforting but expressed caution over the next few hours.
Charity stayed at Riley for weeks while her stricken daughter underwent treatment. Father Matt remained at home with Madison, who emotionally suffered as twins do when the other is troubled.
Months and years of therapy followed for Mackenzie, whose stroke created swelling of the brain and hampered her neurological development.
Madison eventually followed a path to the University of Evansville where she is studying to become a physician’s assistant to eventually assist those with physical and mental disabilities. Their younger brother Colin wrote a book about Mackenzie’s special talents. Charity became involved with The Meningitis Foundation, was featured in Twins Magazine for raising two uniquely different twins and spoke at seminars for college physical therapy students.
The Ely’s are familiar to numerous Southsiders. They are making plans to celebrate their 50th anniversary next year.
Cindy retired a few years ago after working as a special needs assistant at a Perry Township elementary school where she could counsel many families facing similar dilemmas. Howard is noted for developing numerous girls basketball players, including former Indiana All-Stars Laura Gaybrick and Katie Douglas among others.
Cindy recalled using words as “terror” and “dark days” at the outset of Mackenzie’s diagnosis.
When Madison and Mackenzie walked across the graduation stage, the entire Ely-Alber family could understand fully why their prayers were answered through the years and why they were selected for an exceptional life’s journey.