By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 13, 2010
Instead of being in classes and taking exams, Marissa Kennedy spent two months hospitalized during her junior year as her weight dropped to less than 85 pounds.
She spent the time undergoing medical tests at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. At the hospital, she was persuaded by caring physical therapists to get out of bed. Nurses and doctors checked in on her daily. Friends and family made the 120-mile roundtrip drive from Athens.
“Looking back on it, it was a good experience. Obviously, not being sick, but I met a lot of good people at the hospital, my nurses were really nice and the doctors. I wasn’t by myself. Not even for a day,” Marissa said. “I guess the overall lesson is how much God cares.”
Dealing with her illness has inspired Marissa to serve at a summer camp for youngsters with skin diseases. She attended the camp years ago.
Marissa is one of 29 students graduating from Monsignor Donovan High School, Athens, this month. The middle of three children, her father, Nolan, is a Delta pilot, and her mother, Annetri, is a stay-at-home mom. They attend St. Joseph Church, Athens. The family moved to North Georgia three years ago from Texas.
Her illness has demanded much of her attention during her senior year.
Pats Laniak, the counselor at the school, said Marissa has been a model student.
“She has been struggling with serious health-related issues for a long time, and she has persevered. Her family is very faithful, and they have put their lives in God’s hands, trusting in His goodness,” she said.
Marissa in the fall is attending Presbyterian College in South Carolina. She plans on studying psychology and nonprofit business management.
The interest in the nonprofit course work is to make her dream job a reality. Marissa aspires to start an animal shelter. She said it would specialize in rehabilitating aggressive dogs. She even has a slogan ready: “Where every animal is given a second chance.”
She’s got a lot of experience. Since moving to Georgia, the family has had a small farm, with turkeys, horses, sheep, chickens, roosters. In addition, there are the three family dogs.
Starting in December 2008, Marissa got ill from ulcerative colitis, an inflammation of the bowels. She dealt with extreme pain across her back, chest and head. A fever spiked her temperature to 105 degrees. Doctors couldn’t diagnose the cause and she ended up in the hospital. A feeding tube was installed at one point.
Despite the pain, Marissa said she found moments of peace.
“At that moment, I knew everything would be over eventually because God was there,” she said.
Eventually, doctors found the proper combination of medicines to treat her. But the new medication came with its own troubles for the teenager.
“Here I was supposed to be 100 pounds coming out and I was 130. That was probably the hardest part, because even if you don’t care what people think about, you still want to be pretty. That was the hardest part.”
In late June, she’ll head to Camp Discovery in Minnesota where the focus is on fun for children with chronic skin problems. She spent some summers there as a camper with her eczema, which was a minor problem compared with that of other campers.
“It definitely was an eye-opener. A lot of them were really bad. Some of them would eventually die because of their skin problems. It made me thankful for what I had,” she said.
Marissa said the weeklong trip is an opportunity for her to give back to the camp.
“It’s because I want people to have as much fun as I did,” she said.