For most graduating seniors, the transition to college includes a summer spent purchasing dorm room supplies and hanging out with friends.
For 18-year-old Ashley Witzke, that transition lasted only a weekend and came less than one year after undergoing extensive brain surgery.
She completed her studies at Catonsville High School Friday, Jan. 25, and began her collegiate career Monday Jan. 28, at the Catonsville campus of Community College of Baltimore County.
As she prepares to complete her first semester of college and take final exams on May 11, said she has been reflecting on the lengthy journey that brought her to this point.
She had just transferred to Mount de Sales Academy from Catonsville High School to begin her junior year when she began having debilitating headaches in October of 2011.
"I had just started and everyone thought it was stress," Ashley Witzke said.
"I knew right away, no, it's not stress. I've had stress before," she said.
"She's a very outgoing, very active, very involved person," her father, Craig Witzke, said.
"And every day she'd go to school and she was there for an hour, maybe half a day and we'd have to go pick her up," he said.
After many hospital visits, misleading diagnoses and weeks of absence from her new school, in December 2011 an MRI and an appointment with Dr. George Jallo, professor of pediatrics and neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children Center, revealed a brain condition called Chiari Malformation.
Jallo explained that the malformation results when a portion of the brain called the cerebellar tonsils do not fit properly inside the skull.
"They slide down and they slide out of the skull cavity and they're putting pressure on the brain stem and the spinal cord," Jallo said.
She tried a variety of medications to treat her symptoms, but after nothing helped, Ashley Witzke made the decision to undergo risky brain surgery on Feb. 10, 2012.
Jallo said that although 80 to 90 percent of patients see improvements after surgery, only about 15 percent are completely rid of their symptoms.
After making a small incision at the base of her neck, Jallo said he removed a piece of Ashley Witzke's skull.
"We would drill out some bone that measures about an inch and a half by an inch and a half," Jallo said.
"At that point, once we decompress it (the brain), we open up the covering of the brain, the dura, and sew in a graft," he said.
That graft allows the dura to grow back at a size that allows the cerebellar tonsils to be protected.
Looking back, she said she could not be happier with her decision to proceed.
"I took the risk and I've never had a headache since," she said.
Beating the odds
Ashley returned to school March 1, less than one month after surgery. However, she did not go back to Mount de Sales. Instead, she transferred back to Catonsville High School.
Mount de Sales officials told her that, because she had missed so much class, she would not be able to graduate until May 2014, a year later than she planned.
Though he thinks Mount de Sales is a great school, Craig Witzke said Ashley's decision to return to Catonsville High School was a good one.
"Mount de Sales wasn't prepared to work with a long-term illness," he said.
"They did what they could but they just weren't prepared for it," he said.
She said she doesn't regret it at all.
"I never really appreciated Catonsville (High) until they took me back," Ashley Witzke said.
"I realized I love that school. It's a great school," she said.
She said she worked as hard as she could to make up for the time she missed and, less than a year later, was able to complete all of her high school credits a full semester early.
"Even though I came in halfway through the year, I was able to catch up on the material," Ashley Witzke said.
"I don't know how I did it," she said.
"I did a lot of work," she said.
Jallo said he is impressed with her recovery and ability to jump back into the academic world.
"A lot of times, it's hard for someone who's not going to school to go back to school and excel," her doctor said.
"She's done phenomenal. She's done great," Jallo said.
"I'm very proud of her," he said.
Though she will still attend prom May 18 and walk across the stage with her peers May 29, she will already be finished with her first semester of college. She said it will be a unique experience, but that she wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's (college) definitely different from high school, but I wouldn't take another semester of high school," Ashley Witzke said.
"I love college and I'm very grateful that I got the chance to do that right away," she said.
Ashley Witzke said her illness, not only made her a stronger person, it gave her an opportunity to decide what she wanted to do with her future.
She plans to complete the mortuary science program at CCBC and work in her father's business, Craig Witzke Funeral Care, after completing the four-year program.
"I'll be the fifth generation," she said of her family's funeral home business.
"I was like, Wow! It's in my blood. I guess I have to do it," she said.