KaBrea Pipkins wasn’t sure if she was going to make it to John Tyler High School graduation. It’s not that she didn’t have a ride. It’s that she almost didn’t have her life, or at least her life as she knew it.
Miss Pipkins, 18, is a gifted student. Academically, she has always excelled and school came easily to her.
But in February, a sudden and serious illness sidelined Miss Pipkins for two months.
She missed the rest of her senior year but managed to finish her work to graduate with her class and maintain her top 20 status. She is ranked 12th of the 344 graduates.
“It means a lot,” she said of graduating high school. “It’s really a blessing. I really thank God for allowing me to be able to actually graduate with my class.”
For Miss Pipkins, the spring of her senior year started with anticipation. She was thinking about going to college in Houston and excited about the last few months at John Tyler.
As a high school student, she had participated in student council, National Honor Society, senior leadership, soccer and cheerleading.
On top of that, she balanced being mother to her 1-year-old son, Kayce Jackson.
It was her desire to have a good life for herself and her son that motivated her to do well. She was enjoying her senior year — until she got sick.
It started off with regular cold symptoms: congestion and sneezing. She went to the emergency room once, and the staff told her she had a sinus infection and prescribed antibiotics.
But her symptoms progressed. The next day she felt weak.
“I needed help walking to the bathroom, getting up, sitting up,” she said.
Another trip to the hospital yielded minimal results. Blood tests came back negative. The staff gave her an IV, then sent her home. She could barely walk.
The next morning, Miss Pipkins woke up and couldn’t move. Her grandparents carried her to their truck to take her back to the emergency room again.
The blood tests came back negative again, but the staff kept her there because she couldn’t move. It was Feb. 21.
That day, she entered the cardiac intensive care unit. That was the start of a two-month hospital stay.
Diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, Miss Pipkins had a long recovery ahead of her. Some people can get better in a few weeks, but for others, it takes a few years, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website.
A disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the body itself, the syndrome’s first symptoms include fluctuating degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs, according to the website.
The weakness and abnormal sensations can spread to the arms and upper body and can increase in intensity until the person is almost paralyzed.
Most people recover from even severe cases of the syndrome, although some continue to suffer from weakness, according to the website.
When the doctor told Miss Pipkins she likely would be hospitalized for months, she was terrified, she said. All she could do was cry, because this was her senior year, and she was about to miss everything, she said.
The first part of her hospital stay was a blur.
“I don’t really remember much,” she said.
The slow process of trying to wean her off a ventilator and build up her physical strength followed that.
She was on a ventilator and feeding tube for about a month and had surgery in April to address complications as a result of the tracheotomy tube and scar tissue.
Two months and two days after she went into the Tyler hospital, she was released from a Dallas hospital where she had the surgery done.
Miss Pipkins said she just wanted to get out of the hospital so she could go back to school and finish her senior year.
Miss Pipkins was taking three dual-credit courses through Tyler Junior College along with some high school classes this school year. In late March, she started working on course work from the hospital to catch up. Tyler ISD sent a homebound teacher to bring her work and pick it up. She took her last test through TJC on Wednesday.
Miss Pipkins said her mother, Michelle Taylor, has been her primary encourager through the whole situation. Ms. Taylor, 48, took a leave of absence from her job as a medical records clerk so she could stay by her daughter’s side. Miss Pipkin’s grandmother took care of her son during that time as well.
Ms. Taylor said it’s a relief to see her daughter graduate with her class because she wasn’t sure if it was going to happen.
Although Miss Pipkins never returned to school after being hospitalized, she attended prom May 17 and was named prom queen, something that she said made her “really happy and excited.”
She said physically, she is feeling stronger, although she still gets tired if she has to walk for long distances. She recovered a lot more quickly than the doctors expected.
A Faulconer Scholarship recipient, Miss Pipkins plans to attend Tyler Junior College before transferring to the University of Houston. Ultimately, she wants to become a pharmacist. The scholarship will support up to five years of undergraduate work with the potential to receive a graduate scholarship.
Last month, the Tyler ISD Foundation recognized Miss Pipkins as one of John Tyler’s top 20 students during its Night of Shining Stars event. She selected her health science teacher Juanita Maxwell as her honoree for the event.
Ms. Maxwell described Miss Pipkins as the “most determined student I have taught in my eight years at John Tyler.”
“She is active on campus in sports, cheer, student organizations,” Ms. Maxwell wrote of her. “Through many obstacles, Ms. Pipkins has maintained her dedication to education and her family. Her passion for life is beyond that of most of the high school population. KaBrea is a champ when it comes to adversity. Her current situation is a true example of how she maintains her faith in her Lord and those around her. She is true to her dignity and integrity.”