NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Kaia Jergenson was pumping iron in the weight room. It was the beginning of the new year, and the 6-foot-2 freshman basketball player at Lipscomb University had returned to campus early from the holiday break for practices.
She was feeling optimistic. "Things are really starting to click for me,'' she told coach Frank Bennett.
But that night, she started to feel a chill, then vomited and called her mother to warn she probably had a stomach virus.
The next day, Kaia (pronounced KY'yuh) was hospitalized, unconscious and in critical condition--her life in the balance from meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial infection in her bloodstream.
Her family released a statement asking for prayers.
Prayer is part of the fabric of Lipscomb University. Associated with the Churches of Christ, the four-year liberal arts school requires its 2,600 students to attend daily chapel services and Bible studies. Many professors open class with prayer, and informal devotional groups meet throughout each week.
As students heard of Kaia's sudden illness, restoring her health became their daily supplication.
"In every prayer I hear, Kaia is at the top of the list,'' says Rachel Lavender, president of the Student Government Association. "All over campus, before we go to sleep, when we wake up, she's in our hearts.''
Several students quickly organized a round-the-clock prayer vigil, asking classmates to sign up to pray for Kaia in 10-minute segments.
"We wanted at least one person to be praying for Kaia at all hours of the day,'' says Pat Ford, a sophomore computer science and Bible major from Athens, Ga.
"I worried the overnight hours wouldn't get covered and had planned myself to fill whatever segments were free. But it filled right up. In fact, some spots were double- and triple-signed.''
It was a powerful expression of faith. And the students expected results.
"I wanted to see Kaia wake up, be healed and walk out of that hospital,'' says Chris Nelms, 20, who had the 4:40 a.m. shift. "I prayed that I'd one day see her running the basketball court again.''
The Scriptures were clear, the students felt.
The Apostle Paul wrote to "pray without ceasing'' (I Thessalonians 5:17). And they did.
Jesus said, "Ask, and it will be given you'' (Matthew 7:7). The students asked.
Christ said, "All things are possible to him who believes'' (Mark 9:23). And they believed.
They believed and prayed for a complete recovery.
On January 19, a week after the vigil began, surgeons amputated both of Kaia's legs below the knee.
Doctors at Saint Thomas Hospital said they were trying to save her life by removing dead tissue. Her condition remained critical.
The surgery shocked Nashville, but especially those on Lipscomb's small campus.
"We're in college. We hardly think about something this serious,'' says Lavender. "Most of the time, we worry about tests and boyfriends or girlfriends.''
Ford, who organized the prayer vigil, says he was "crushed.''
"I think for all of us here, it kind of shook our faith,'' he says. ''There was some questioning whether we were really doing any good'' by praying for her.
The double-amputation was especially anguishing because she was so young--just 18--and because she was a standout athlete, the emotional leader for the team. Kaia was a leading scorer and rebounder just as she had been in high school, where she'd led her team to the state championship last year and was tournament MVP.
Off the court, Kaia was an A/B student with aspirations of becoming a doctor. She loved to sing and go to movies with friends and was still brimming with excitement about a high school trip to Europe last summer.
"She always had a big smile on her face,'' Lipscomb teammate Shelley Sims says, "even when she was running down the court.''
But Kaia would no longer run. She would no longer play college basketball. In fact, she was still fighting for her life. And in their own way, her classmates were struggling, too.
Professor Earl Lavender, who teaches theology at Lipscomb, quickly noticed a difference in his students in the new semester.
"Their ability to verbalize what they believe seemed shaken,'' Lavender says. "They could do it fairly simplistically before this. Now they have had to reconsider. They used to think they were in control of their life. They have had to come to terms with the fact they aren't.''
Questions flowed: Why did Kaia lose her legs when so many were praying for her to be healed? Does prayer work? How does God respond?
Lavender noticed more and more students dropping by to talk. "They'd sit down and talk around things and eventually get to 'What is my life all about, anyway?''' he says.
The nature of class discussions changed. He found students hungrier for understanding and less tolerant of easy explanations for difficult ideas: The physical body versus a spiritual one. Confronting suffering in a feel-good culture. Finding divine strength in earthly weakness.
"These issues no longer have a nameless face. Now when they ask themselves these questions, they think of Kaia,'' he says.
Groping for spiritual understanding, they found some comfort in the busy-ness of fund-raisers for Kaia's medical expenses.
A bake sale by the cheerleaders, dormitory donation drives, an empty milk jug in the campus snack store for students' spare change.
Nashville radio stations solicited contributions. Nearby, Gallatin High School, where she had starred, designated one basketball game "Kaia Night'' and donated gate receipts. Bud Adams, owner of the National Football League's Tennessee Titans, donated two Super Bowl tickets to auction.
The medical fund established by the school topped $130,000 within two months, says school spokesman David England.
Kaia's family has asked for privacy throughout the ordeal. Recently, they released a statement that Kaia was conscious again and her condition improving.
They thanked those who had prayed for her.
The next day, Lipscomb Bible professor John York opened chapel services on campus:
"Oh God,'' he prayed, "we are grateful beyond words that you are still active in our lives--that you hear our prayers. We hurt with her, Father, but we also celebrate with her.''
The prayer vigil is still on. But the nature of the petitions has changed, as has the outlook of many students.
"I pray that she doesn't blame God,'' Nelms says. "I pray that she can return to a good and fruitful life. I know that God has a better plan for her than just playing basketball at Lipscomb University.''
Ford listens more and talks less. "I've moved from just assuming whatever I think is God's will to 'Thy will be done,''' he says.
Mark Jent, a senior business major, says praying for Kaia will be one of his most important college experiences.
"I will never forget this,'' he says, pausing and repeating slowly, "I will never forget this.''
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