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Extra Effort: Onalaska Luther High School

Extra Effort: Onalaska Luther teen triumphs over twin challenges

From the From Tribune files: 2020-21 Extra Effort Award winners series
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Sarah Kirsch

Onalaska Luther High School senior Sarah Kirsch has been nominated for the La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort Award.

On the same day that Sarah Kirsch learned she had a serious medical condition, her parents finalized their divorce.

That’s a lot for a teenager to absorb within a 24-hour period, but she never stopped being an outgoing and inquisitive young woman with big ambitions. Her triumph against the twin challenges of her teenage years has earned the Onalaska Luther High School senior a nomination for the La Crosse Tribune’s Extra Effort Award.

After sailing through a freshman year at Luther when she played sports and made lots of new friends, Kirsch was confronted by a sophomore year “when all the medical stuff started.” She will never forget the day she was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a condition in which cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the brain.

“The day they went to court to finalize the divorce was the day I was at the eye doctor,” she recalled. “It was an interesting day for all that to get done, but we made it through.”

Kirsch had been experiencing headaches since the sixth grade, which she believed were the lingering effects from a hard fall while playing basketball. When the medical team discovered it was hydrocephalus, it wasted no time scheduling surgery.

“I had never heard of it before,” she said. “It’s usually diagnosed in infants, so it was really weird for me to be diagnosed at 15. It was stressful — I took off a week of school for brain surgery.”

Kirsch was determined to meet the challenge of recovery, which included missed classes due to follow-up appointments and a light panel that fell on her head a few weeks after the surgery and forced doctors to restitch.

“I was really far behind when I came back, but I guess it made me re-prioritize all my classes and figure out how to do it all,” she said.

Luke Rosenbaum, who taught Kirsch in two math classes and has known her since her freshman year, said Kirsch didn’t flinch from her medical condition.

“She dove into learning about it,” Rosenbaum said. “She would show me scans from her doctor’s appointments ... and tell me everything about her brain and all the new terms she had learned. She took it as a learning experience.”

Kirsch says doctors have been able to effectively manage her hydrocephalus during the past two years. She said the condition has blocked her sense of smell, but she’s grateful the surgery was “non-invasive” and that her recent brain scans have been encouraging.

“I have to stay monitored because it could close up at any time, but right now it seems to be good,” she said.

Kirsch said her mother, Darcie Kirsch, has been a “saint” as she helped her daughter navigate the jolting transitions in her life.

“She’s been the only working parent for a while in my family,” Sarah Kirsch said. “I can only imagine how much time she had to take off for all my medical stuff. She’s always been a headstrong, get-it-done person.”

Sarah Kirsch, the youngest of Darcie Kirsch’s four children, said she’s inspired by her mother’s religious faith, especially since her mother came from a family that wasn’t religious.

“She’s raised us Christian, and I’ve always admired that about her because her family isn’t — we don’t come from a whole line of Christians,” she said. “She stays with her faith, and that’s inspiring.”

Rosenbaum said Sarah Kirsch’s faith is “the most important thing that has gotten her through.”

“In many of the conversations I would have with Sarah, she would talk about how she knew God had a plan ... a challenge that God had given her but not a challenge she couldn’t overcome,” he said.

Kirsch no longer plays sports but still has an active life outside the classroom. She’s performs with two Luther choirs and is a member of the National Honor Society and Rejuveknights, a student-run organization that helps everyone at Luther enjoy a better day.

She has also played the piano since first grade. She regularly plays for chapel services at Luther and occasionally at church — and sometimes just for fun.

“It’s always been the one thing I can fall back on when I’m stressed,” she said. “It’s an easy way of relaxing and calming yourself down.”

Kirsch plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse this fall. She’s undecided on a major but is leaning toward business, a major she hopes would allow her to travel with her job.

She plans to live on campus and is looking forward to attending a school with a diverse student body.

“I’ve been going to a private school all my life,” Kirsch said. “I’m really excited to go to a public university and meet all kinds of different types of people.”

Rosenbaum said Kirsch will be a positive influence on people she meets and has the right approach for a successful career and life.

“She will be positively impacting people — you can see that by the way she interacts with her peers,” he said. “She’s focused on the details. No matter what the task is, she’s going to apply herself.”

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Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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