Five years can mean many things to us. A birthday. A reunion. An anniversary. A reminder of time. Tomorrow marks the five–year anniversary of when time almost ended for me.
57 days and nights in the hospital. 15 of them spent in the Neuro ICU, and this was all during the last three months of my senior year of high school in 2012. It began as a terrible migraine, simply dismissed as a virus during my first visit to the ER in the middle of a Saturday night. The next thing I vividly remember was waking up in the hospital five weeks later with a helmet on my head and multiple IVs and a feeding tube hooked up to my body. But I didn’t—and still don’t—remember everything in between. I was lost, confused and scared. All of this made no sense to me, so my parents proceeded to tell me what had happened.
My condition continued to worsen after I returned home from the ER later that Saturday night, and three days later I was rushed back to the hospital after becoming unconscious. When I first got there, the doctors didn’t know what I had—maybe meningitis, maybe West Nile Virus. After a series of tests, my internist called in an infectious disease specialist and neurologist as I began to drift, sleeping most of the day, drifting out of my state of consciousness. The neurologist ordered an MRI for me that night, and we received the results and diagnosis the next morning.
The MRI showed us that I had viral encephalitis, the inflammation of the brain due to a virus tracking the nerve pathway to the brain. A two in a million chance, and it happened to me. At that point, I was totally out of it. I wasn’t getting out of bed because I couldn’t get myself out. I began losing my ability to speak. I wasn’t eating because I couldn’t swallow, and although I was put on an antiviral medication, the brain swelling from the virus continued to worsen. On Saturday March 24, 2012, I had an emergency craniectomy procedure. Part of my skull was removed and placed under the skin of my stomach to relieve the pressure from my brain.
None of this was easy. I felt stuck. I just wanted everything to go back to the way it was before I got sick. It was the middle of April, and I had already been in the hospital for more than a month, yet it felt like a lifetime. I wanted to go back to school. I wanted to be dancing with my high school dance company and competing with my dance studio. I missed my friends. I wanted to be home. I felt like everything had been ripped out of my hands, and I was just starting all over again. I wanted my life back, so I had to fight for it. I had to learn how to walk again, talk again and swallow again.
I had my second and final surgery in June, when they reattached my skull plate that had been kept alive and well under the skin of my stomach. After the surgery, I chose to defer Penn in order to give myself the time to make a full recovery. Yes, going through a life changing experience changed my life and me forever, but I want to remember these past five years as five years of courage. Of getting up every day and not being afraid of what may happen, but instead, holding my breath and just going for it. Of being grateful for every day I have to live, of not being afraid because I have already fallen, and of not being afraid because I have nothing to lose. Instead, being brave, feeling honored and lucky to have had the opportunity I fought for: to get up and keep going.
Everybody has their story, and this is mine. As soon as I had my second and final surgery in June to put the removed skull plate back in my head, and found myself slowly and carefully taking the barre portion of a beginning ballet class about a week later, people asked me when I was going to write my story. I knew I wanted to write it, deciding that I would title it “Finding Center,” something that I’m doing every time I dance—digging deep to get in touch with my inner core, and my true self within. By maintaining that center, we are able to remain mentally balanced. However, we can lose that balance too, and that’s what happened to me, and it was completely out of my control. I got knocked off my feet and had to fight like never before to find my center again.
This story doesn’t have an ending. The doctors called my recovery a miracle, and I was able to come to Penn and have the full college experience going beyond what I dreamed of, but this story does not have an ending—it continues on just as we do, but I will not let this story define me. I am not “the sick girl.” I am a fighter and a dreamer. I will not give up. I will not let this obstacle set me back. Instead, I recognize the good that it’s done for me. It helped me find my voice. It helped me understand my passions. It helped me find my courage. The courage to be present. The courage to feel alive. And the courage to feel free.
In seven and a half weeks, I will be graduating from Penn. Last year, I wrote a piece about the courage that I wanted going into my senior year, making every second count. I did that when I got up onstage at my first dance competition following the recovery from my illness, just as the one year anniversary was approaching, dancing the solo I would have competed senior year, and dancing another solo I choreographed inspired by this story. That’s where my courage lies. We all have it, it’s just how we find it. Understanding that it’s true, we only live once, so we should start or continue living like that too. Making every second, smile, kiss, laugh, and leap count. Leaping without fear—living with no regrets. Doing what we would do if we weren’t afraid.
Five years ago, I performed in my last high school dance concert the week before I got sick, and this weekend will be my last dance show with Arts House Dance Company. Twenty years of dancing, fifteen years of competing, and four years with Arts House. This is it. Five years ago, I was being rushed into the Operating Room to have a surgery that saved my life. Five years later, I will be cheering “Whose Haus?! Arts House!” just before we walk onstage and begin the show. This time, my cheering and dancing will be different. I won’t just be cheering for another dance show. I will bravely be cheering and dancing louder, harder, and stronger. Cheering for five years of fighting, five years of courage. Losing myself in the moment onstage dancing fearlessly, present and centered, and exploding with life.