This past summer was on its way to being one of the best years of Jazzmin Peluchette’s life.
At 17, she was just two credits shy of fulfilling her graduation requirements and hadn’t even started her senior year yet.
She was already studying for her associate’s degree at Florida International University. She was volunteering, running every day, working as a lifeguard — and, with high grades and a SAT score of 2060 — had one singular dream: enrolling in the University of Miami.
The moment that changed Jazzmin’s life began with a sharp pain in her back, as she was driving to FIU on July 11.
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Within 24 hours, she would find herself hooked up to life support, blind and paralyzed. When she woke up at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood the next day, she was so frightened that it took a team of doctors and nurses to calm her down.
And it would take eight more days before they would even know what was wrong.
“At one point, I thought I was going to die,’’ Jazzmin said. “I was just so frightened.’’
She spent the next five weeks in intensive care, diagnosed with a rare disease, called NeuroMyelitis Optica (NMO), an autoimmune disorder that attacks the nervous system and is especially aggressive on young people. It’s not clear how many people have the disease because it is often misdiagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis. And there is no known cure. Patients sometimes relapse.
Over the next few months, Jazzmin — once an active, determined and independent teenager — struggled daily with the physical and emotional pain of realizing her life probably was never going to be the same.
Simple things, like being able to hold a spoon, seemed out of reach.
For a young woman whose dreams had never seemed far from her grasp, it was like learning her ABCs all over again. She could see only shadows; she couldn’t move her arms or legs, and she didn’t know when — or whether — she would be well again.
Her father, Tim Peluchette, recalls the sight of his daughter in intensive care, hooked to a ventilator, unable to help her.
“I, just, I just cried, seeing the tube in her, she was hooked up to tubes and couldn’t move,’’ he recalls.
It would be almost two weeks before she could breathe on her own. But gradually, and with the help of her family and a group of doctors, nurses and therapists, she slowly began to see and move again.
“It’s almost like you’re back as a baby. You almost have to go through the psychological and physical development stages again,’’ said Beth Fletcher, Jazzmin’s nurse, massage therapist and one of her closest supporters.
“There would be times that I would go in and massage her, and she would be in so much pain,’’ Fletcher said. “So I taught her the names of the muscles, so she learned the names and essentially, what she did was she became part of her recovery. I enrolled her in her own healing process.’’
Within a few months, Jazzmin returned to her studies at FIU and enrolled in computer-assisted classes. She was still determined to get into UM, even though she quietly admitted she was worried about how students would look at her in a wheelchair.
“She worried that people would feel sorry for her. That was another hurdle she had to get through. She didn’t want people to pity her,’’ Fletcher said.
By the time she returned to the family’s Biscayne Park home in September, her parents had partially retrofitted it to accommodate her wheelchair.
Still, she does not know whether she will ever walk again. Rehab is costly, and the hospital bills have absorbed all the family’s savings. Since UM is a private school, her wish is to get some help with her some of her college expenses.
The family also needs help with medical equipment for Jazzmin.
She was nominated for Wish Book by Scott Roy of Miami’s Lois Pope Life Center, who, upon hearing about her determination, was impressed with her life story.
Tim Peluchette says his daughter’s determination also has left him amazed.
“Every day is a new day,’’ he said.
But one thing is certain.
Jazzmin will go to the University of Miami.
She received her acceptance letter for the fall semester the day after Christmas.
“I guess there is a bigger plan for me and I just haven’t figured it out yet,’’ Jazzmin said.