Susquehannock: Warriors' Brooke McGee fights through Crohn's disease
Now, all these years later, Brooke McGee might make it look so easy.
After all, the Susquehannock graduate has a scholarship to play Division I college soccer next season. She ranked in the top 10 percent of her graduating class. And, she plans to pursue a chemical engineering degree at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Behind closed doors, however, there is a very different picture of what McGee has overcome, including doctors' warnings that she might not be able to play sports. She downs nine pills, a regimen of seven vitamins and two prescription medications, every morning to help treat Crohn's disease. She overcame a torn anterior cruciate ligament that wiped out her entire junior season of sports. The journey through Susquehannock hasn't just been academic accolades and athletic awards.
"I never stopped sports, I fought through it," McGee said. "They told me, 'Don't overwork yourself,' but that's not me."
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McGee had been diagnosed with Crohn's disease at age 12. That's the time when her life began to go out of whack. It marked a crazy time when everything changed.
The disease causes inflammation in the digestive tract, and its symptoms vary from patient to patient. Crohn's can cause fatigue and severe abdominal pain, but it can also result in unexpected yet urgent needs to use the bathroom and flareups that result in hospitalization.
None of it is easy to talk about, especially for an adolescent.
McGee struggled to sleep.
She suffered from mood swings.
She couldn't eat enough.
Doctors even warned her that participating in sports would be difficult — perhaps impossible.
Her appearance changed after the steroids her doctors had initially prescribed caused her to gain weight.
"It was definitely very hard, so I chose to tell teachers more so than friends because I was self-conscious about how I looked," McGee said.
The breaking point came when administrators called her mother, Patti McGee, at work at Susquehannock High School. They wanted her to come to the middle school. Something seemed terribly wrong.
Brooke had completed a geometry test.
Then she erased the entire test.
The math teacher added one more tidbit. The faint lines of what McGee tried to erase on her test could still be read: Every problem had been solved correctly.
"I said, 'OK, she can't go on like this,'" Patti McGee said.
The family returned to the University of Maryland Medical Center. They wanted, and Brooke needed, a different form of treatment.
Doctors talked about trying an intravenous antibody, Remicade, but they informed the McGees the treatment had resulted in reports of serious infections and even lymphoma in some patients — a fact noted on Remicade's website. Patti McGee remembers one person describing the intravenous treatment as being similar to "a very mild chemotherapy." The treatments would be administered every six weeks in four-hour sessions by an intravenous drip.
In the end, the McGees opted to try the treatment because it could change Brooke's quality of life — returning it to a more normal level.
"I signed the consent form and said my Hail Marys," Patti McGee said.
The treatment worked. The disease has gone into remission, and even though she has suffered from flare-ups and been hospitalized for short stretches, she returned to a more normal existence. Brooke has been able to return to being Brooke.
"Her quality of life is banging," Patti McGee said. "We almost don't even think about it anymore."
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Brooke McGee knows it sounds strange, but she doesn't have a negative reaction to needles or injections.
"I almost welcome them because I know it will make me feel better," McGee said.
She has grown accustomed to a routine. Treatment is now every eight weeks. She will go into a "tiny little room" with three infusion tables. She will sit and wait for her nurse to administer an IV. And once the drip begins, she will feel the coldness of the treatment entering her arm.
There will be changes in the fall. The family has picked a new facility for her treatment in New Jersey. They have found a relative who can drive her to and from the hospital.
Still, her mother has concerns any mother would.
"I just hope she remembers to take her pills," Patti McGee said.
Yet, they have come so far. At the end of her senior year of high school, Brooke McGee doesn't look back with dread or the need to ask, "Why me?"
"I've been fortunate enough that my (Crohn's) severity does not hinder my quality of life," she said.
She knows others with Crohn's disease who have needed to be home-schooled. They've gained weight. They've had to make drastic changes to their diet. Their entire lives have changed, and they've lost what they once knew as normal.
McGee has been able to remain in school, and she's excelled. She has been able to remain on the soccer field, and she's excelled. And now she's on to the next challenge: college.
"I'm just so lucky," McGee said.
Contact Jim Seip at 771-2025.