Pushing through: Student succeeds despite life-changing diagnosis

Alexandra Hayden went from always being on-the-go to not being able to get up for three months, and her family was traveling the country trying to find a diagnosis.

Before that, Hayden was an involved, straight-A student. One day, she wasn’t able to get out of bed without her parents picking her up. When she could get up on her own, she would vomit. Sometimes she would sleep for days, and others she couldn’t sleep at all.

At first she thought she had mono. Then she thought it was a sinus infection.

Eventually, she was lost.

“I went to one doctor right after I turned 15, and he said people my age would come in saying they were sick then mysteriously grow out of it when they were 18,” Hayden said. “But I kept telling him I really was sick.”

“I was confined to my bed. I had my worst, worst, worst symptoms. I was bummed that I was missing out on everything I wanted to be doing.”

She had her gallbladder removed, went through numerous tests and was told she was just simply depressed. On her 14th doctor, her family got the clear answer they had been seeking for more than a year.

“It was heartbreaking because she was very engaged and loved theater and dance, and not knowing what was wrong with her was so very difficult and terrible,” said Melissa Hayden, Alexandra’s mother.

The diagnosis was postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, also known as POTS.

POTS is caused by a malfunction of a person’s autonomic nervous system, meaning the body cannot control blood pressure or heart rate. Because of this, a person’s body may not get enough blood to their brain, causing them to feel dizzy and lightheaded. Other symptoms include nausea, feeling anxious and fatigue.

Because of POTS, Hayden is now on eight different medications. Her main medications are a steroid that helps her retain salt and the other is a pure salt tablet to help regulate blood pressure.

Despite being sick and not being able to go to traditional school, Hayden pushed to still graduate.

“Being sick just wasn’t me,” Hayden said. “I was thankful I didn’t have something terminal. When you hit rocky patches in your life, you just have to get through it.”

And Hayden did just that.

Although she could no longer attend Center Grove High School, she enrolled in Indiana Connections Academy, an online school. As she traveled across the country to find out what was wrong, she would log into school wherever she could find internet.

“To be a student in our school, takes a lot of self motivation and self direction, and she is really motivated and very responsible and eager to do well,” said Melissa Brown, principal at Indiana Connections Academy. “I know that her health issues have gotten in the way in the past, but it was important for us to give her as normal of an educational experience as we could.”

In June 2017, Hayden not only graduated from high school, but graduated as one of the top 20 in her class of more than 500 with a GPA of 4.25. Hayden was the first Hoosier to receive the Barbara Dreyer scholarship, a $2,500 award only 20 students get nationwide.

“She was presented with this scholarship, and she was so appreciative that she asked me for names and contact of the family so she could thank them,” Brown said. “I knew Barbara personally so it was an honor to give that award to Alexandra.”

In the fall she will head to Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, to study entrepreneurship and motion pictures. She was honored to be accepted in Belmont’s honors program, a program only 70 people get into each year.

“I’ve worked hard enough while I’ve been sick with my grades and my commitments to get into schools without having to play that sick card,” Hayden said. “I am very, very motivated and energetic. My high school experience was not normal. I am more motivated than most because I’ve gone through a lot.”

Although POTS is a lifelong condition, Hayden will be able to attend traditional classes at Belmont thanks to her eight medications.

She also plans to meet with the school before starting in the fall to let them know of her illness in case she needs any accommodations.