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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 29, 2002

Castle graduate gains diploma, new lease on life

By Rod Ohir
Advertiser Staff Writer

Seventeen-year-old Carrie-Lee Iaea walked off the stage in June, clutching her diploma from Castle High School. Teary-eyed on the walk back to her seat, she resisted the urge to shout, "I did it!"

The exhilaration of the moment was the culmination of all the prayers, hard work and determination it took for Iaea to overcome severe challenges caused by acute disseminated encephalomyelitis or ADEM, a rare neurological disease.

Iaea was stricken with ADEM in 1999, her sophomore year at Castle. It happened without warning on the Friday before Labor Day.

Kanani Iaea recalled being in the kitchen preparing breakfast at her Kane'ohe home on Kulukeoe Place that day, when she noticed something unusual about her daughter.

"Her routine was off," Kanani Iaea said. "She normally gets up, washes, dresses and does her hair. On this morning, she didn't wash, didn't do her hair but was dressed. Her body motion was very robotic. It scared me."

Recent high school graduate Carrie-Lee Iaea, left, enjoys a moment with mom Kanani and niece Lia.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

They got ready and drove to school.

"When I got to Castle, Carrie-Lee was just sitting there, looking ahead. I asked her if she was going to school and she robotically shook her head no. I asked her if she was feeling ill and she nodded her head yes."

Iaea drove home, called her husband and told him to meet them at Kapi'olani Medical Center for Women & Children.

"She had this blank stare," the girl's mother said. "I put her on a sofa and went to register. Five or 10 minutes later, I found her slumped over on the sofa. She had lost the use of her arms and couldn't push herself back up."

Magnetic Resonance Imaging revealed swelling in the brain. After four days of testing, Carrie-Lee was diagnosed with ADEM.

"It's a kin of multiple sclerosis," said Dr. Gregory K. Yim, the girl's neurologist. "We consider ADEM as an illness that doesn't relapse, but no one knows for sure."

Yim estimates that among the 3,700 children he's treated in the past eight years, there have been, perhaps, five cases of ADEM. "Recovery is more likely than not," he said, noting that a small percentage can be affected by MS later.

Yim treated the girl with maximum doses of gamma globulin for four straight days, considering steroids as a last resort.

"Nothing changed for almost a week but Dr. Yim kept telling us after the fourth night to wait and see," Kanani Iaea said. "We were getting anxious. Because there was pressure on Carrie's brain, she was constantly vomiting so someone had to be with her 24 hours to prevent her from choking."

When her daughter was discharged 3 1/2 weeks later, she still could not speak or move her arms.

"It was weird and I was frustrated," Carrie-Lee said. "I was trying to speak but couldn't make the words come out."

Nine weeks after being stricken, Carrie-Lee approached her mother, who was washing breakfast dishes, and tried to utter a word. This time, it came out. "Mom."

With encouragement from friends — Crystal Robello, Eha Cavaco, Tiffany Andrews and Brianna Smiths — Carrie-Lee began making up for the semester of school she had missed. "We were prepared for the long haul, for maybe a 50 percent recovery," her mother said. "Her friends played a big role in that recovery. But Carrie did it on sheer determination."

Carrie-Lee, who plans to attend University of Hawai'i-Hilo in the fall, had to take special classes that gave her more time to complete projects but completed her high school requirements. "She's about 95 percent recovered," her mother said.

In her senior year, Carrie-Lee decided to give something back by assisting physically challenged students at Castle.

"Physical therapy, working with students in wheelchairs who can't move or do nothing, that's what I want to do," Carrie-Lee said. "I relate to them. I know they have feelings.

"I never thought how hard it would be to get back. To talk again was happy. To move my arms again was happy. To go back to school was happy. To have family and friends is happy. But graduating was a more better happy. It was the best happy of all."

Reach Rod Ohira at 535-8181 or rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.