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Extraordinary Senior: School, friends helped Jackie Arias cope with kidney failure

Jackie Arias, 18, wearing the uniform for her

Jackie Arias, 18, wearing the uniform for her nursing internship at a Freeport pediatrician's office on May 23 at Cohen Children's Medical Center, where she was treated after being diagnosed with Takayasu arteritis. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

This story is part of Newsday’s 2019 Extraordinary Seniors series showcasing 16 high school students from across Long Island with the vision and determination to transform their corners of the universe — and perhaps beyond. Click here to read more.

Grit, resilience and optimism.

These are a few words that come to mind when describing Jackie Arias.

Just before her sophomore year at Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick, Arias was diagnosed with Takayasu arteritis, an autoimmune disease causing inflammation of the blood vessels that can result in heart damage. Soon after, she experienced kidney failure and, requiring dialysis several times a week, began home instruction.

At the start of her senior year, Arias underwent a kidney transplant — and was back in school two months later. Despite her dogged determination since her diagnosis, Arias, 18, admits to very difficult days.

“I was hopeless many times," she said, "especially when time passed, and I still hadn’t gotten my kidney.”

“Those were very tough moments for Jackie,” Dr. Laura Castellanos, a nephrologist at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, said of waiting for a donor match.

Arias credits Castellanos, her other doctors, family and teachers for helping her through those trying times.

“They were always supportive, and it kind of gave me hope that I would have a future,” Arias said.

Arias is “a ray of light who shines by sharing her quest to learn through her inspirational outlook on life,” said Cara Sycoff, who taught Arias Italian at Calhoun. “I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with her, as I was enriched by her optimism and her brilliance.”

Schoolwork, Arias said, helped distract her from her health troubles. “I would always be surrounded by friends, and all the stress of school definitely kept my mind off [my health issues],” she said.

Still, staying indoors for two months after her transplant -- unless she had medical appointments — proved incredibly challenging and, Arias said, "pretty boring."

"When I went back to school, I was a bit behind on calculus, so I had to put in extra work with my home instructor and my in-school teacher," she said.

Despite missing school, Arias took Advanced Placement courses and honors classes, maintained a 95 average and was a member of concert choir, International Buddy Club, which promotes diversity, and the Breakfast Club, which helps special-education students.

Praising Arias for her determination and bright attitude, Ricky Posner, Arias’ school counselor, said, “Jackie is a special young woman who is destined for great success. She is warm, humble and a model to all future students.”

Recently, Arias learned that Castellanos needs a new kidney.

Castellanos noted that Arias has shared information on her Facebook page to help find a donor match for her doctor. “She’s very supportive of everybody,” Castellanos said.

"I know what it's like to be where the patient is. I can relate to them because I have gone through many health issues myself," Arias said.

For her part, Arias, who is doing an internship at a pediatrician's office in Freeport, advises those with similar health issues to keep looking forward. “I would just say, ‘Don’t give up. I know it’s scary, but there’s always a way,’” she said.

HIGHER ED: Arias will attend Adelphi University and major in pediatric nursing.

FRESHMAN YEAR: “I’m really excited to start the path of being a nurse, start my classes and meet new people.”

IF I RULED THE WORLD "There would be a better transplant system. There are millions of people out there waiting for a new organ and many people, unfortunately, pass away waiting."

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