BLACK RIVER FALLS — Carah Bunnell lives with pain. Ignoring it, along with nausea and dizziness, the 17-year-old depends on daily routines and careful maneuvers to avoid any serious complications from a medical condition that took over her life when she was a freshman.
Carah missed months of school after being diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, but not any more, even though she still lives with the disease.
“I don’t think about it at all,” Carah said.
Carah is the La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort Award winner for Black River Falls High School.
Carah struggled with migraines for years but wasn’t aware of her condition until she lost consciousness at a mall salon. She was getting her nails done when she passed out and spent a night in the emergency room.
“Of course, me, I was just like, ‘No, there’s nothing wrong with me, it was the fumes in the nail area,’” Carah said.
After visiting Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., the summer before her freshman year, Carah was diagnosed with POTS. Doctors tested her by strapping her to a table and tipping her forward until she was on her feet. Patients usually last about 10 minutes before they lose consciousness, Carah said.
“I barely lasted two,” Carah said.
She was on five different kinds of medication, but her condition worsened and she started spending more time at home, away from school.
“Those absences were adding up,” said Susan Leadholm, a counselor at the high school.
Leadholm nominated Carah for the Extra Effort Award. Carah missed 19 days her freshman year and 43 days her sophomore year.
POTS affects Carah’s blood flow. Headaches and nausea occur as a result, and still make her “pretty much feel like crap every day,” but at first they were debilitating, Carah said.
“I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning,” Carah said. “It just kept getting worse.”
A three-week pain management program changed her life. She was reluctant when she began Mayo’s Pediatric Chronic Pain Rehabilitation Program, but it only took a few days before she started feeling better, Carah said.
Staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, Carah worked with doctors and nurses and learned new exercises and eating habits.
“I am very pleased to report that Miss Bunnell completed our program and demonstrated a high level of understanding of our concepts of managing pain,” reads a letter from Barbara Bruce, clinical director of the program.
Carah changed everything about her daily routine, from the way she does chores to the way she picks things up off the ground. Even the way she breathes.
She hasn’t missed a school day due to POTS since leaving the Mayo program, though she still missed significant time in her junior year after contracting mononucleosis and pneumonia in the same month.
“She didn’t become the victim,” Leadholm said. “She was, instead, empowered by this knowledge of what she had to do.”
Each night in bed, Carah practices breathing from her diaphragm, taking deep breaths. It’s a technique she learned from the program to help her relax.
She also learned to block out all of the pain and sickness.
“She just went through so much that a younger person shouldn’t have to,” Leadholm said.
Carah struggled to catch up at school and feels like she still doesn’t have the same academic foundation as her peers. Despite worrying about the class time and school work she missed when she was battling POTS, Carah is intent on going to college and has already been accepted to Western Technical College.
“This fall, applying for college, that was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” Carah said.
Carah wants to study human services at Western, and she hopes to transfer to Winona State University to earn a four-year degree. She wants to be a source of strength for kids who are abused or neglected.
She wants to work at a place like the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, where she found a community that helped her overcome her own condition. She knows first-hand how much that can help, Carah said.
“To me, there’s no greater feeling than helping people who can’t help themselves,” Carah said. “And giving them that happiness.”