Senior year can be a taxing, exhausting experience for any student. There's grades and tests and homecoming and prom and the thoughts of college and graduation.
For one Pass Christian High School student, her senior year was all of those things -- plus an unexpected trip to New York for brain surgery during the middle of the school year.
Allison Hennessey will be graduating with honors Friday night from Pass High. She is a normal 18-year-old senior who was the homecoming queen and head cheerleader.
But all of that was suddenly put on hold in December when she started experiencing problems with her health, particularly her brain.
"I have a brain disorder called Arnold-Chiari malformation," she said. "I have already had one brain surgery my eighth-grade year and everything was OK until I started having symptoms a few months before Christmas."
Chiari malformations are structural defects in the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain the controls balance. It pushes the brain stem down into the spinal column. The symptoms of the disorder can vary from person to person.
"I started having migraines and started losing feeling in my hands and my feet and I have trouble walking, because my balance is really bad," she said. "I have muscle spasms in my neck and in my shoulder and in my back -- it was getting to the point where I couldn't sit in class, and I couldn't do normal activities."
Off to the Big Apple
Hennessey said her mother was "fed up" with lack of knowledge of Chiari malformations in the area, and they decided to fly to New York to see a specialist.
"We flew to New York, and I saw the specialist. And he did some tests, and he recommended that I go through a second brain surgery," she said. "And so, that's what we decided to do -- if I can't function normally now, how am I going to function normally when I go to college?"
She had her surgery Dec. 28. And after staying in ICU for three days and spending a few weeks recovering at the hospital and a Ronald McDonald House, she had missed two months of school.
A helping hand
Jettie Necaise is a junior at Pass High. She said she has been "friends through school" with Hennessey for a few years. When she heard about what her friend was going through, Necaise decided to take some action.
"One day, I was just thinking about Allison and what she was going through," Necaise said. "I made a T-shirt design, and I put her disease on the front of it. I secretly asked her mom for a quote that she liked. I transferred that into a cross, and we put that on the back."
Necaise said they took orders for the shirt in secret so Hennessey wouldn't know about it.
"We raised about $2,000 for Allison," she said.
Hennessey said she had no idea that her schoolmate was raising money for her family.
"I was just completely overwhelmed," she said. "I spent the entire day I found out crying at school and taking pictures with everyone that bought a shirt."
The long road to recovery
While Hennessey was recovering from her brain surgery, she started doing classwork at home in an effort to stay up to date with her studies.
"Pass has been amazing at accommodating me," she said. "They were very helpful even before my surgery -- they even worked on me with my cheerleading schedule."
She said a follow up trip to New York showed some improvement with the malformation.
"The doctor said my scans look amazing, but I still have good days and bad days," she said. "It's taken me a while to feel better, but I can see that the more months I'm out of surgery that I will be doing even better."
Graduation and beyond
Hennessey plans to move to Hattiesburg where she will major in nursing at the University of Southern Mississippi.
And although her senior year was hard at times, she said she never thought about giving up.
"Going through brain surgery, you have to tell yourself that you're not going to let things slow you down," she said. "To feel so normal and then to have something that continually wants to tear you down, you have no choice but to want that normal stuff like going to senior prom and going to senior day and have my picture hanging in the hall after I graduate."