A student’s senior year of high school is supposed to be memorable. And by all accounts, for Gunnison High School’s (GHS) Gemma Vincent, it’s been just that.
The lifelong dancer received first place for her performance at a competition on the Front Range earlier this year — and last week even directed her peers in a play at Western Colorado University that Gemma wrote herself.
Yet, when she graduates alongside fellow GHS students this coming Sunday, the experience will be extra special. That’s because Gemma wasn’t sure she’d graduate on time after a high school career plagued by a mysterious and vexing illness.
As a freshman, Gemma was in a world of inexplicable pain and that December suffered the first of recurring migraines that sent her to the emergency room. Over the course of the next year, she saw a series of doctors who had difficulty diagnosing her illness as it progressed.
The migraines were later accompanied by joint pain to the point that Gemma could barely walk. Some of the physicians suggested that perhaps the malady was psychological or stressinduced, but her mother knew there must be a better explanation.
“We were just completely frustrated,” said Amy Vincent. “You know when your kid is sick. Being told that they need to seek psychiatric help, we knew that it was beyond that. This wasn’t something that sitting on a couch and talking out her feelings was going to fix.”
Dreams put on hold
Gemma remained bed-ridden. She became depressed. Her grades slipped. And when friends reached out, she wouldn’t return their messages because she simply didn’t feel well enough to face them.
“When you’re a freshman in high school, you have all these dreams and plans for what your high school career is going to be like,” Gemma said. “When you have to stop doing that, it’s really hard.”
However, an orthobionomist suggested that Gemma should be tested for Lyme disease. An initial test proved positive, and subsequent blood work at a clinic in Arizona confirmed the ailment along with six co-infections.
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria typically transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected tick. It’s unknown exactly when Gemma contracted the ailment. It can remain dormant for some time.
Doctors informed the family that Gemma could be cured in 10 weeks, but it would cost $100,000 cash. At the time, Gemma’s father, Jon, was in a coma in intensive care after suffering a bout with acute pancreatitis.
“I just kept doing a lot of research,” said Amy, who owns Gunnison Glass with her husband and knew that the high cost of treatment for her daughter was out of the question since Jon wasn’t working.
Eventually, the Vincents found a naturopathic physician in Grand Junction who also is a medical doctor. About a year ago, Gemma began treatment throughe ozone infusions to increase the amount of oxygen in her body, Ketamine infusions for pain and low-dose immunotherapy to help restore neurological functions.
“A year ago today, I really thought that by now she would be in a wheelchair,” Amy said. “Most days she wouldn’t get out of bed and was losing weight because she couldn’t keep anything down.”
Regardless, the experience has been difficult for the family. The Vincents pay for Gemma’s treatments out of pocket. They were forced to sell their home, and last summer lived in their camper to make ends meet.
Still, it’s hoped that Gemma will be cured of the disease in coming years. Today, the muscle and joint pain and migraines continue, but treatment has allowed Gemma to regain some semblance of her former self.
The dancer since the age of 2 was previously a member of High Attitude Dance Academy’s Elite Team but discontinued her passion as a sophomore because of the pain she was in. But early this school year, she decided that she was tired of letting the disease control what she did and who she was. In January, Gemma entered a dance competition in Longmont, performing to a song that, to her, described a journey through pain and suffering.
‘It shapes you’
The judges were in the process of naming the top five places, working their way from lowest to highest. After announcing second place, Gemma thought, “Dang, I didn’t make it.”
Then first place was named. The honor belonged to Gemma.
“Dance to me has always been an outlet, but at that point I realized how much something can tear you apart mentally and build you back up at the same time,” she said. “It kind of shapes you into a new person.”
Gemma has taken multiple honors and advanced placement classes over the course of her high school career and will graduate with a grade-point average of 3.7. But after missing a significant amount of school, graduating on time remained in question. Early this year, she learned that she didn’t have enough credits to walk alongside her classmates.
So her counselor let Gemma produce a play she wrote her sophomore year for her Capstone project. This past Thursday, fellow students took to the stage at Western to perform Gemma’s “The Girl in the Yellow Dress.”
While Gemma fell in love with the idea of attending George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., she’s decided to stay in Gunnison and attend Western, majoring in theater and minoring in creative writing, so she can more easily continue treatment.
It’s not her first choice, but Gemma knows it will be best in the end. And she feels fortunate to have support from family, friends and a higher power.
“I’m a firm believer in faith,” she said. “I believe God helped me get through all of it.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)