On Sunday afternoon, a few hours after waking up inside her University of Kansas Hospital room, 18-year-old Rachel Arndt put on her newest outfit, threw on a cap and gown and, ignoring the wound from her recent brain surgery, made her way slowly toward a laptop computer in a hospital conference room.
She had a high school graduation ceremony to attend.
It all started May 11, when Rachel, a senior at Andover Central High School who would be graduating in a week, returned from a work shift at Wendy’s with a severe headache.
It wasn’t like Rachel to complain, said her mother, Tracey. She was a three-sport athlete — she’d played softball, basketball and tennis for the high school just east of Wichita — but when things didn’t improve that night, they headed to the emergency room.
There, the family found out that Rachel had suffered a brain aneurism, a potentially deadly condition involving bleeding of the brain.
The next day, Rachel was flown to the University of Kansas Hospital, where on Thursday she underwent a six-hour surgery, said her father, Larry Arndt.
Luckily, the surgery went well.
Unfortunately, because of the recovery time needed, there was no way she’d be back in Andover for her high school graduation, which was schedled for 1 p.m. Sunday.
That’s when the folks at the University of Kansas Hospital got an idea.
With the help of Andover Central officials and the University of Kansas’ telemedicine team, the hospital arranged for Rachel to patched into the graduation ceremony nearly 200 miles away using video-conferencing software. She would be able to see everything as if she were there, and her high school softball coach would walk across the stage in her place to accept her diploma.
It was a way for her to be a part of her graduation day, and to her family, it was a beautiful gesture.
“All we did was make mention to one of the nurses that she was going to miss her graduation, and from there, the hospital just took it and ran with it,” said Rachel’s father.
So on Sunday morning, Rachel woke on the ninth floor of the hospital’s neuroscience intensive care unit. She had Fruit Loops for breakfast. She talked with her family and put on the new outfit that her brother and sister had gone shopping for the night before, texing her pictures of different options until finally receiving her approval. Her sister, Melissa Reed, helped do her hair. Her brother, Sam Arndt, was never far from her side.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Rachel said during a small media gathering before the graduation ceremony. “They got me on some different (medication) dosages.”
At around 1 p.m., as scrub-cloaked hospital employees bustled about sterile hallways dotted with hand-sanitizing stations, Rachel and 25 or so friends and relatives gathered in a conference room.
The mood was celebratory — there were cake and cards and balloons, a hard-cover copy of Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” — but as various students and teachers stepped to a podium nearly 200 miles away to talk about things like perserverance and the future, Rachel sat between her mom and her brother, looking exhausted.
She sipped water as her mom played with her hair. There was some talk about whether she had the energy to make it through the ceremony.
At sometime after 1:30 Sunday afternoon, though, the Andover Central principal, Cheryl Hochhalter, stepped to the podium. In the hospital conference room, things got quiet, the focus turning to the small laptop that had been set up at the front of the room, displaying a live video feed of the ceremony.
After a brief introduction, Hochhalter detailed Rachel’s ordeal and the arrangements that had been made to allow her to take part in the day’s festivities, drawing a raucous ovation from the crowd in Andover.
“We love you and we miss you,” she told Rachel, and a few moments later, it was complete.
Three days after undergoing brain surgery, Rachel Arndt was officially a member of the Andover Central graduating class of 2014.
The celebration would be short-lived. Within minutes of being honored, Rachel was already making her way back to her hospital room to rest. Her family was hopeful that, assuming tests went well, she’d be able to return home early this week. They were already contemplating the details of a full-blown graduation party at the family’s home when she’s back.
And while Sunday’s conference-room ceremony wasn’t exactly the traditional graduation-day experience, the family was quick to look at the positives.
“Who else,” asked Rachel’s sister, “has a graduation like this?”