WALKING TALL: Mt. Vernon senior’s challenges are inspiring her to help others

Mt. Vernon senior Emma Walker, right, was instrumental in forming Mt. Vernon High School's mental health club, Bring Change to Mind. Emma said her illness and the suicide of someone she knew motivated her to take action to help others. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

FORTVILLE — Emma Walker lost her ability to walk shortly after starting at Mt. Vernon High School.

It was one of several ailments that kept her from school and tested her physical and emotional health.

Not only did she overcome those struggles and regain the ability to use her legs, but she’s planning to walk across the stage on Friday night to accept her high school diploma.

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Freshmen often have enough on their minds as they start high school, but Emma added even more to that list after she suffered three blows to the head in quick succession. At a church youth retreat in the beginning of the school year, she accidentally struck her head on a pool’s metal lifeguard stand. That same night, she took a rubber ball to the same spot. A week later, that same spot was struck yet again, this time by a volleyball.

“It started to go downhill from there,” Emma said.

She saw a doctor, who diagnosed her with a concussion. When she later became ill, a blood test indicated she had mononucleosis. About a month after that, she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines as “a rare neurological disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of its peripheral nervous system — the network of nerves located outside of the brain and spinal cord.”

Guillain-Barré syndrome made Emma’s hands and feet feel tingly and decreased their ability to function. She started out on crutches, but soon had to switch to a wheelchair, which she used for two months. Emma also took painkillers for the tingling.

To treat her concussion, she had to remain in a low-light and low-noise environment in her family’s McCordsville home.

It all prevented her from participating in activities she loved, like volleyball, band and church. She missed about 40 days of school her freshman year but was still able to maintain her 3.9 GPA working from home.

“Reading books, writing papers, doing work — I was able to do everything on the couch and turn it all in and get that done,” Emma said.

Her math teacher freshman year, Joe Anderson, said in an email that Emma’s success stemmed from overcoming doubt.

“Emma was someone who struggled to believe in herself when it came to math,” Anderson said. “She had the ability. I tried to push and encourage her to believe in herself. I see people every semester struggle to see their true potential when it comes to math. They get math anxiety, and it’s my goal to make students overcome that fear.”

The bulk of Emma’s Guillain-Barré syndrome had run its course by the summer between her freshman and sophomore years, but the months spent in a wheelchair had atrophied her legs. To remedy that, she spent three weeks doing physical therapy at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

While at the clinic, Emma learned of another issue: She was diagnosed with amplified chronic pain syndrome, an increased sensitivity to pain. Amid the swimming and other physical therapy activities, she found support by meeting other girls with the same diagnosis.

“It was really nice to have people going through it with me,” Emma said. “That really helped.”

While symptoms flare up occasionally, she hasn’t needed medication for Guillain-Barré syndrome since about junior year.

“It comes up sometimes,” she said. “If I’m on my feet a lot, I’ll get some pain, but it’s not as bad as it was.”

Emma said the experience strengthened her faith.

“The only thing that got me out of my funk was because God was there with me,” she said.

After overcoming her health issues, she’s been able to not only devote more time to high school, but extracurricular activities like the school’s mental health club: Bring Change to Mind. The group decoratively painted the message, “You are altogether beautiful; You are enough,” in a girls’ restroom at the school.

“I really want people to know that they do matter,” Emma said.

Mental health became a topic she could personally relate to after experiencing the physical health issues that started during her freshman year.

“I was in a very dark place battling with anxiety and depression when I went through the medical crises,” Emma said in an email. “It made me question my purpose in life and if I was meant to be here.”

After a friend’s son took his own life, she realized everyone goes through difficult and dark moments, she continued.

“Both of those experiences prompted my passion to start the mental health club,” she said. “I wanted people to know they are not alone and that we all go through hard times. We just need to be there for each other to get through those hard times.”

Emma was a finalist for a scholarship from the Lilly Endowment and is set to graduate from high school with a certified nursing assistant certificate. She plans to attend Anderson University to major in nursing and minor in Christian ministry.

The health challenges she had to conquer toward the end of her childhood inspired the career she plans to pursue in adulthood. Emma has fond memories of how supportive medical and physical therapy workers were throughout her hardships. She hopes to be just as helpful to others one day as they were for her.

One memory sticks out above all the others — the nurse who held her hand all throughout a spinal tap she underwent.

“That’s what I want to be,” Emma said. “I want to be the hand-holding nurse.”

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This is the second in a series of stories this week about members of the class of 2019 who have overcome adversity.