Mekayla Holm had a plan.
She would finish her career at Park High School, go to college and move on to medical school to become a pulmonologist.
Then a medical diagnosis changed the plan and her approach to life.
Holm’s been dancing 12 years, but in her freshman year her parents and others noticed she was developing stability problems.
There was concern about her spine during a March 2015 physical, and her pediatrician referred her to a specialty clinic. From there she was sent to Shriners Hospitals for Children. Doctors suspected Holm’s symptoms were due to something more than scoliosis.
After hearing doctors discuss Friedreich’s ataxia as a possible diagnosis, she said she returned to school and started researching the disease.
“I was in the bathroom crying because I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I was very scared because I’ve always had a plan.”
Genetic testing confirmed the diagnosis of Friedreich’s ataxia, a neuromuscular disease that causes degeneration of the spinal cord and nerves. It does not affect cognitive abilities, but people with the disease suffer imbalance and eventually lose sensation in their legs and arms, develop slurred speech and have other movement limitations. Scoliosis also is common, and diabetes and heart problems can occur. The disease is genetic; Holm said her brother also was diagnosed with it.
Holm’s diagnosis came the summer before her senior year. It changed some of her post-high school plans, and has shaped her view of life in ways her peers may not experience for years.
“It kind of changed the way I looked at life - kind of not taking things for granted (anymore),” she said.
Her symptoms made the start of her senior year rough. Difficulty walking in the morning forced her to miss class, sometimes a couple times a week last fall. Holm credited Park nurse Michelle Salita for helping to communicate with her teachers and coordinate her work assignments so she didn’t fall behind.
Friends help her carry bags between classes; lugging a backpack can worsen her instability.
Teachers also have been helpful by giving Holm more time to complete tests that require writing; the disease makes handwriting more difficult.
Holm said she will miss her support system at Park but is eager for challenges ahead.
“I think I’m ready to move on and see what’s next,” she said.
Studying to become a doctor is unlikely now, but Holm is eyeing a career in respiratory care. Her interest stems from breathing problems she had growing up.
“So I want to help kids with issues like me,” she said.
Holm looked at the University of Minnesota’s Rochester campus but chose St. Catherine in part because it’s close to home. She has started a clinical trial to try to control balance and coordination, but it requires getting two shots three times a week. While she had wanted to live on campus in college, she probably will stay at home where she is more comfortable.
In the meantime, the symptoms of her disease have not stopped her from dancing.
“It’s kind of like my physical therapy,” she said.
Mekayla Holm had a plan.