Marching through adversity, a student’s journey onto the field

By Abigail Keller

Throughout campus, Sarah Ferguson zooms along the uneven sidewalks. Often attached to an electric scooter, her wheelchair pivots and twists to narrowly avoid absent bricks sticking out like chasms. 

Ornamented with a “Finding Nemo” keychain and a plethora of personalized embroidered art, her blur is impossible to miss as flaming red locks blaze behind her. 

Most Saturdays, Sarah’s long ginger mane is tied and tucked into a shako carrying the university’s emblem and a plume of vibrant blue feathers. For members of the Marching Tar Heels, the shako is a symbol of pride and community atop their heads.

For Sarah, it represents a journey of hurt, music, and finding belonging. 

It began in the fourth grade. Sarah can remember hearing brash notes fill the house as her brother soulfully played the saxophone. From the first time her hands gripped the hand-me-down brass instrument, she knew there was no going back. 

Sarah attended Burns High School in the lush countryside of Lawndale, North Carolina. After watching the local professional drum corps, Carolina Crown, perform at Gardner Webb University every year, the decision to join her high school marching band was obvious. 

Towards the end of her junior year, she left Burns High School to study at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics – an academic journey that was cut short.

A life changing experience

Midway through NCSSM’s first trimester, Sarah suffered a traumatic brain injury that led to the development of epilepsy and the declining function of her autonomic nervous system. 

Her life spiraled into a cyclone of doctor visit after doctor visit. 

It wasn’t until a geneticist diagnosed her with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an inherited disorder affecting the connective tissues, that her questions were answered. 

Immediately after her stroke, Sarah was hemiplegic – unable to move the entire left side of her body. Eventually, her upper body regained mobility, but the lower extremities never did due to a tethered spinal cord.

Sarah’s newly diagnosed condition made her significantly more aware of her overly flexible joints and fragile arteries, but she played on. 

With the love and support of her mother, who Sarah compares to a protective pit bull, she returned to Burns High School for yet another fresh start. 

“A lot of things change when you become chronically ill and disabled, you lose a lot of friends and learn who’s real,” Sarah said. “My mom has always been one of my biggest advocates.”

Up until her senior year of high school, Sarah methodically marched across the field as her fingers danced up and down her conical bore of an instrument. During her last season with “The Marching Dawgs,” she was a part of the marching band’s front ensemble, flying from the keys of marimbas, xylophones, and vibraphones.

Every Friday night, she got high off the roar of the crowd and the glaring lights illuminating her smiling face after every half-time show.

But just four months after her senior marching season concluded, a worldwide pandemic upended the life that she knew. 

It was just one of those moments.

Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing as the world rapidly began to shut down.

Students thought they were getting an extra break in the school year, but that quickly transformed into clicking on a Zoom invite for class and waving to their friends from their bedroom window. 

For Sarah, 2020 ushered in many major life events.

It brought her high school graduation day and the beginning of her time at UNC-Chapel Hill.

It also brought a stroke and adjusting to life as a paraplegic.  

Already home due to the pandemic, Sarah continued her virtual studies and returned to campus as a sophomore last year. 

However, she was fixated on one question.

Was there a place for her in the marching band?

“I was really nervous to ask about joining the marching band,” Sarah said. “But my roommate kept bugging me and bugging me, claiming that I can’t stop talking about it, so I decided to send an email.”

This email leaped through cyberspace and landed in the inbox of Jeffrey Fuchs, director of UNC-CH’s university bands. 

Before she knew it, Sarah was sitting in his Hill Hall office and discussing all the details of her becoming a Marching Tar Heel for well over an hour. 

There was no hesitation on either side, it was an immediate yes. 

“Music’s been a source of opportunities and a place where I feel like I belong to people,” Fuchs said. “That’s what I try to do here … it’s about the music, but more importantly, it’s about the experiences band members have that they couldn’t have otherwise.”

Not only was Sarah going to look the part, donning the esteemed Carolina blue jacket of a Marching Tar Heel, but she was also going to be back on the field, getting the full experience.

Finding her legs

The first step? 

Finding someone to march on the field with her.

During that year’s end-of-season banquet, Fuchs casually mentioned that Sarah would be joining the Marching Tar Heels in August. He knew that someone with music and marching experience would be the preferable choice to assist her.

At that moment, Annie Flanagan, a junior trombone player, knew that role was for her. 

Since Annie has arthritis in her jaw, playing her instrument throughout the day and at nightly marching practices often led to immeasurable pain. 

Already a human development major and accessibility advocate, it was as if this position was kismet. 

Sarah often refers to Annie as her “legs” since she treks across the 100-yard stage pushing her wheelchair during practices and performances. 

Even though they are two separate beings, they move as one.

If Annie gets lost or confused on the field, Sarah’s hand gingerly tilts her wheel to guide her in the right direction. 

Like a flower during the cusp of spring, their bond has blossomed into a relationship scarily close to telepathy. 

But Annie is no hero.

“My belief is that things should just be inherently accessible,” Annie said. “I’m not doing some amazing service. I’m just playing my part in what I can do to help make this experience more equitable.”

For many, music is a melting pot for individuals from all walks of life to dive into and revel in. 

And for Sarah, the excitement of being back on the field enveloped by music was incomparable.

An old and new life interwoven.

“It was a feeling I thought I was never going to have again,” Sarah said.


Edited by Eric Weir and Monique Williams