Graduation day at last.
Today marks a milestone that Jackie Mills was never supposed to experience. As she gingerly rises from her motorized scooter to walk up to receive her diploma tonight, tears will likely well up in her parents' eyes.
It's a special day for the Joe and Judy Mills family of rural Brainerd.
The 18-year-old Brainerd High School senior who suffers from a congenital heart defect was never expected to live to be 3 years old. But she has defied the odds and dreams to one day become a writer.
Jackie suffers from a heart and lung condition with a ventricular septral defect, a condition her parents discovered when she was 8 months old. She has no pulmonary artery attached to her left lung, which means her left lung is basically dead, she said. Open heart surgery was performed when she was 2 1/2 years old to attempt to repair her heart, but it wasn't successful. Her doctors said she wouldn't live to be 3. Later, they told her parents she wouldn't live to be 8.
Jackie has never been able to run, jump, skip or hop like other children. She was never able to participate in athletics at Brainerd High School or even attend gym class. For the past six years, she's attended school three days a week because she becomes too tired. She could often be found riding her scooter around the high school campus. Sometimes she uses her wheelchair. For the past two years, she's been taking oxygen through breathing tubes at night.
"I've watched kids do things I would like to do, but I can't," said Jackie. "I've spent a lot of time sitting on the sidelines."
It's been hard for Jackie to make friends. Often, kids can be cruel, teasing her about her wheelchair.
"When you're in a wheelchair, it can be a barrier," she said. "We're all different. It seems like sometimes you're in a glass cage when you're in a wheelchair."
Because Jackie hasn't been able to be physically active, she's turned inward. She loves to read and write stories and enjoys using her home computer. Her nickname at school is "Bookworm."
She plans to attend Central Lakes College next year and major in English. Her strong faith in God, she said, has helped her keep her positive attitude.
"If it wasn't for Him, I wouldn't be here," said Jackie.
"She lives for God a lot. You can see that in her," said Jackie's best friend and classmate, Theresa Theisen.
Jackie has volunteered at Bethany Good Samaritan Village for the past five years, where her mother works.
Judy Mills said doctors have told her that if Jackie had been born today, her heart condition could be corrected because of technological advances in medicine. A heart and lung transplant is a possibility, but it would be risky. Judy said her daughter will only undergo such a transplant in a crisis situation. Jackie is prone to infections and has to have a pint of blood removed every nine to 12 months in order to regenerate new, healthy blood cells.
"She has a drive and an awful lot of positive in her," said her mother. "It has helped her reach the age that she has. I'm very proud of her because school has been tough for her."
Jackie, said her mother, has been able to enjoy a variety of experiences through her books. She has a massive library of her own.
"In books, you can travel the world over and have all kinds of adventures," said Judy.
Jackie's parents and 20-year-old brother, Joey, will be cheering for her at tonight's graduation ceremony.
"This is a day we never thought we'd see," said Judy. "We are thankful for today. We're thankful for every day."
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