Starting at a brand new school in the fall is rarely easy.
Teenagers entering an unfamiliar school often worry about whether or not they’ll make new friends, or if their teachers will pile them with homework, or if they’ll share classes with their best friends.
Every student has been there at one point or another in their educational careers, but imagine not being able to take part in this fresh start.
Imagine not being able to be there to meet your new teachers, or reconnect with your old friends.
For Meghan Pawlak, an eighth-grader at Kenmore West High School, this is the struggle she’s had to face.
This year Meghan was diagnosed with a pineal cyst, which is a sort of brain tumor.
Generally, these cysts do not cause many symptoms, but in Meghan’s case, the size of the cyst – roughly a quarter of an inch, or the size of a pencil’s eraser – caused symptoms that she and her family could not simply brush aside.
"Last fall Meghan began stuttering and we didn’t think much about it," recalls her mother, Erin Griffin.
"Then, after the new year, she began having headaches and chills. We took her to her pediatrician and Children’s Hospital. She had a CT scan, which didn’t show anything."
After her headache became constant and she developed tremors, seizures and leg weakness, Meghan was referred to a neurologist, who did an MRI and noted an "incidental" finding of a 7mm pineal cyst.
"We were assured it was not the problem," Griffin remembers. "I began researching the cyst online and found other stories of people with the same symptoms and that the pineal cyst was the cause of the problems."
Not pleased with the care her daughter was receiving, Griffin took matters into her own hands, and talked to a doctor in Houston.
"I found Dr. Dong Kim online through his webinar video," says Griffin, who gathered Meghan’s medical records and sent them by FedEx overnight to Kim’s office.
"They called the next day to schedule the consult. At the consult, they agreed to operate and scheduled her surgery for less than a month later," Griffin says.
This means that Meghan is not in school, and is not present for what would be her first year as a student at Kenmore West.
Despite it all, she remains brave and optimistic.
"I am both scared and nervous, just trying to get through it," Meghan says. "I just have to deal with the pain knowing I will be better in the end. Sometimes I feel alone because my life is on pause."
Meghan was excited to get an extra year at West and now she is missing it.
"It’s been weird but it has not been the hardest part of this. I wish I could be at school and see my friends everyday," she says.
Her friends in Buffalo feel the exact same way.
"Having Meghan away from school has been hard on everyone,’ says Skylar Stychalska, an eighth-grader at Kenmore West and one of Meghan’s best friends. "Not only am I missing my best friend, but she always brought such a positive energy wherever she went, making everyone laugh and smile. We all miss her." Another friend, Cole Marcotte, agrees.
"I’m sure when Meghan gets back to school it will be a more fun and happy time to go to school," he says. "I believe that she is a role model for various other children who, while they may not be going through the same thing physically, may be going through another trouble."
It isn’t just close family and friends who have gathered around Meghan to support her. People from around Western New York have heard of her story, and have offered whatever help they can. A Go Fund Me page was started for Meghan and has now raised more than $20,000.
"We have been extremely fortunate for the support we have gotten from the WNY and especially the Ken-Ton community," says Meghan’s mom. "Many people have offered other supports, such as places to stay in Texas, baby-sitting for our younger daughter, Reilly.
"It has been humbling and every day someone new comes forward to help us out in one way or another and we are forever indebted," Griffin says.
Meghan is now in Houston, recovering from her surgery, and will hopefully return to school part-time in January or February.
Her mom has reflected on the struggle her daughter and entire family has experienced.
"First, if you do not agree with the care you or a family member getting seek a second opinion," she says. "You need to advocate for your kids, no one knows them better than you do.
"Secondly, if you need help ask for it.
"You will find support from where you least expect it and the people you thought would be there oftentimes have difficulty handling the situation," she continues.
"Third, keep it light – make jokes, don’t stop living," she says.
"Lastly, pay it forward – we have already began our journey of helping other families – we see how many parents from my support group have contacted us and cheered us along and we are starting to do that for other parent," Griffin says.
Meghan’s friends also have taken away life lessons from watching their classmate be so strong in the face of something so difficult.
"Watching Meghan has made me want to be more positive," says Skylar. "Meghan is struggling but she still manages to make sure all of those around her are happy.
"I really don’t know what makes Meghan so brave," she continues. "I always admired her outlook on life and how strong she was. Meghan is the type of person who is strong for everyone else."
Meghan sees it a little differently.
"I don’t think I’m brave, I think I’m just handling the cards I’ve been dealt. You just do what you have to do," she says.
For those who wish to send support, donations can be made to Meghan’s Go Fund Me page at https://www.gofundme.com/2qx3k2vb
Allison Rapp is a senior at Kenmore West High School.