STANTON — For most Central Montcalm High School seniors, walking across the stage and being handed their diploma at Sunday’s commencement ceremony will be an achievement.
Just walking across the stage will be an accomplishment for Jenna Raymond, who just last year didn’t know if she’d be walking at all, much less graduating.
But Jenna will be proudly walking Sunday, with her family, friends and school community cheering her on. She’s earned it.
“She’s an example of how life can throw a lot of curveballs at you, but you can rise to the challenge and achieve your goals,” said Central Montcalm High School Principal Tony Petersen. “She’s fought and she’s worked hard to get to where she’s at.”
A life turned upside down
Last spring, Jenna came home from school complaining of numbness in her right leg, recalls her mother, Jackie Raymond. The family doctor thought she might have a pinched nerve and scheduled an appointment.
But then, out of nowhere, Jenna fell while walking outside. She fell again a few days later during chemistry class.
“It was scary,” Jenna said. “I didn’t really know what was going on. I was nervous about going into public or school.”
Jackie, who is a registered nurse, suspected more than a pinched nerve. She knew her husband’s side of the family had a history of multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease in which nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are damaged, which in turn disrupts the nervous system.
Jackie voiced her concerns to Carson Health physician Dr. Harold Wakefield, who ordered a consultation with neurologist Dr. Narendra Patel of Lansing, who has weekly clinics in Carson City. Patel ordered a series of magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) for Jenna.
Jenna’s brain MRI came back showing eight to 10 lesions on her brain. Very soon afterward, Jenna lost her eyesight. She had MS.
Patel prescribed a weekly intramuscular injection of Avonex, a high dose steroid, which restored Jenna’s eyesight. All seemed well for several months.
But last autumn, just when Jenna had started her senior year of high school, she began to get painful headaches. And then she started to lose her vision again.
Patel ordered another brain MRI. The result showed fresh lesions on Jenna’s brain. She was diagnosed with aggressive MS.
“We had a rough start to her senior year,” Jackie summarized. “It rocked our world. It totally rocked our world.”
Patel prescribed a monthly intravenous infusion of Tysabri, which Jackie calls “the greatest medicine in the world.” It’s also an incredibly expensive medicine. There was no way the Raymond family could afford it, and their insurance company didn’t want to foot the bill either.
Patel fought for Jenna with the insurance company. He ended up convincing them to cover the cost. Jenna began taking the monthly medicine and her vision was restored again.
In the meantime, Jenna didn’t make a big deal about her adjusted lifestyle to friends and staff at Central Montcalm High School.
“Jenna was very quiet about this in the beginning,” said Central Montcalm High School counselor Tammy Miller. “She didn’t want any special attention. She didn’t want people to feel sorry for her.”
Miller’s school office became a safe place for Jenna to talk about what she was going through. Miller put Jenna in touch with a teacher who had been diagnosed with MS. School officials gave Jenna front row parking in the school parking lot and arranged for her to take some of her classes online, which helped her try to keep up with her classmates while battling constant fatigue — a side effect of MS.
Jenna tires easily, naps several hours most days and goes to bed early — “not at all typical for a teenager,” she observes with a rueful grin.
Even while physically struggling, Jenna made time to do volunteer work for Central Montcalm High School fundraisers, including “Orange Out” to fight children’s diabetes and “Pink Out” to fight breast cancer.
Much to her disappointment, Jenna wasn’t able to attend the fundraising games due to her physical condition. She also missed out on homecoming week activities last autumn and she came down with shingles last winter due to her comprised immune system.
Jenna is also regularly tested for the John Cunningham virus (commonly known as JC virus), a common virus harmless to most people, but very dangerous to anyone with MS and a compromised immune systems.
‘Live life to the fullest’
Despite her diagnosis, Jenna chooses to have a positive attitude, as do her mother Jackie, father Joel and brother Justin.
“I think this brought our whole family closer,” Jenna said. “If it wasn’t for my parents, I wouldn’t be where I was, and my brother. I just have to thank them so much for their support.
“My friends have been really great,” she added. “They’ve helped me through everything. My counselors and principal and teachers have been just phenomenal.”
Jenna had another brain MRI last month. No new lesions were detected, which is great news. And even though Jenna’s nervous about walking across the stage at Sunday’s graduation, she’s more excited about everything she’s overcome so far.
“It feels like a really big accomplishment,” she said. “If it wasn’t for all my friends and the staff here, I don’t know where I would be now. You have to live life to the fullest, you can’t take things for granted.”
As summer approaches, Jenna is looking forward to swimming at Derby Lake, watching dirt track races at Crystal Motor Speedway and listening to country music. She’s not sure about her career of choice yet, but she’s going to attend Montcalm Community College this fall to work on general studies while she figures it out.
Her community is behind her all the way.
Central Montcalm High Scool Graduation
What: Central Montcalm commencement
When: 2 p.m. Sunday, May 18
Where: Central Montcalm High School gymnasium
Speakers: Valedictorian Jonathon Beach, Salutatorian Hannah Christensen, Superintendent Kristi Teall and high school Principal Tony Petersen
Number of Graduates: 108
Class Colors: Green and white
Class Flower: Gerber daisy
Class Song: “Free,” by the Zac Brown Band
Class Motto: “When I was five years-old my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
“She really just wanted to tackle it,” Petersen said. “She just wanted to overcome her goals and graduate. I’ve seen her overcome so much. We are very, very proud of her and what she’s done. I just think it’s incredible.”