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Editor’s note: In the last four issues, including today, The Lancaster News has been profiling students who have overcome the odds to earn a high school diploma in 2013.
Michaela DeBruhl comes to life onstage.
The Andrew Jackson High School graduating senior has developed a great passion for acting. She first became interested in drama in middle school and these days has her eyes set on a professional acting career.
Scripts, character costumes and stage lights come to mind when she thinks about her chief interest. But the last several months have seen those items put aside for IVs, hospital beds and consultations with doctors.
DeBruhl, 18, hasn’t been able to attend Andrew Jackson High this semester because of her battle with leukemia. This is her second go-round with the cancer, as she was first diagnosed in 2007.
But thanks to a bone-marrow transplant, much support and determination, DeBruhl has earned all the credits needed to graduate from AJHS on Friday, May 31.
DeBruhl, a Kershaw native, underwent chemotherapy back in 2007 to fight acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which is said to be the most curable form of leukemia.
Since that time, doctors had her come in every 90 days so they could check her white blood cell count. Her levels were good, but that changed toward the end of 2012.
A check of her white blood cells in December led to her having a bone marrow check the following month. Tests revealed that the cancer had returned.
And this time it was two forms of leukemia – ALL and acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
“It really threw her for a loop,” said DeBruhl’s mother, Rachel.
In March, Michaela began a series of six radiation sessions. The purpose behind that is to kill all her blood cells. She then had a bone-marrow transplant April 5. Her sister, Savannah, donated the bone marrow.
Through all the procedures, Michaela experienced blood clots, collapsed lungs and a staph infection. And since the transplant, she’s dealt with skin irritation and much fatigue.
Fortunately, though, the cancer is now in remission, meaning that only a small percentage of her cells are leukemia-stricken.
Setbacks and accommodations
Coming into this final semester, Michaela needed one class – chemistry – to graduate. However, she opted to take an additional class, Advanced Placement (AP) English. Because of her medical issues, Michaela wasn’t able to be at school. So her teachers allowed her to complete her work at home or in Charleston, where she’s had to be for doctor appointments.
Michaela made it a point to finish all the coursework before the transplant because she feared she would be too tired after the procedure.
Lana Broughton, Michaela’s English teacher, said the teen may be the strongest and most determined person she’s ever known.
“Instead of focusing on her fight to be cancer-free, she was more concerned about completing her AP English coursework,” Broughton said. “Michaela was determined to complete every activity that her classmates did. She refused to let the disease take control of her.”
Though she’s been able to complete the coursework, Michaela hates that she hasn’t been able to be with her classmates. She missed the senior prom, cap-and-gown photo session, the senior picnic and group pictures for the school yearbook.
“That makes me really sad,” a teary-eyed Michaela said.
Michaela wants to attend Friday’s graduation ceremony, but her doctors warn her that it may put her at risk for infection.
Right now, she’s undecided.
“I really want to be there,” she said. “I don’t want to miss it. It’s like a rite of passage.”
Rachel DeBruhl understands her daughter’s struggle with such a decision. All of these events are the reason why this second bout with leukemia was trying, from a mother’s standpoint.
“I think it hit me harder this time because I knew it was her senior year,” Rachel DeBruhl said. “It was just heartbreaking for me.”
Chasing a dream
Lately, Michaela has been spending a lot of time in Charleston. She has to undergo 100 days of monitoring at the Medical University of South Carolina.
While in the Lowcountry last week, Michaela reminisced on her love of acting and what her future may hold.
She has been accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Her goal is to eventually act for a profession.
She planned to attend the academy beginning this fall, but she’s been able to defer her start date until fall 2014.
She wants to use that time to get stronger. “I want to be the best I can be when I go to school there,” Michaela said. “I want to be back to my normal self.”
Michaela, who was inducted into the AJHS International Thespian Society chapter in 10th grade, said she feels the most confident when onstage.
“I feel powerful and assured of myself, more so than when I’m not onstage,” she said. “It’s a great experience that I like to share with people.”
Michaela intents to get back to entertaining audiences with theatrics. If anything, this ordeal may make her an even more determined actor.
She says you have to focus on the future.
“You can’t dwell on the past,” she said. “You have to keep looking forward.”
Contact reporter Jesef Williams at (803) 283-1152