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Graduating Senior Battles Disease with Unconventional Approach

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series about students who have had to overcome unusual challenges and hardships to graduate this spring.

Alexis Hickman tells her story candidly and openly, her personality displaying a combination of youthful sparkle and maturity beyond her years.

“This is Johnny,” she says, lifting her shirt to reveal a feeding tube located to the left of her pierced bellybutton.

Pretty, blonde, bubbly and undoubtedly motivated, the 17-year-old Kent City High School senior looks like the poster child for good health. She shows farm animals for 4H, is student council president, a member of the National Honor Society, and played volleyball and basketball. She comes from an active family, including six siblings and three young foster siblings.

But, she receives the majority of her nutrition– about 1,200 calories a day–through the tube. It is the unconventional treatment plan she’s opted for to treat Crohn’s Disease.

Alexis, who has had health problems that doctors were unable to diagnose for years, became very ill during Christmas Break two years ago. “I couldn’t move,” she says. She experienced excruciating abdominal pain and couldn’t keep food down. “I seriously was out of it for two weeks.”

After lots of testing she was diagnosed with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract. She missed much of her sophomore and junior years of school. Last semester, she missed 68 days.

Following her diagnosis, Alexis was treated with prednisone and a medication that has side effects including a higher risk for cancer and infertility. Alexis wasn’t OK with the thought of those conditions looming in her future. She wants to be a mother someday.

So she told doctors at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital that she didn’t want to take the medicine.

“I was like that’s not going to work, so what’s my next option? They said ‘there’s no other option except to get a feeding tube.’

“OK. Let’s do it,” she told them.

Alexis wearing her graduation cap Approaching Graduation Day

Despite the setbacks, Alexis will graduate June 1 with a 3.5 grade point average, an accomplishment she creditsto “the grace of God” and her teachers. Next fall she will attend the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University with plans for a double major in pre-medicine and respiratory therapy.

“I want to be a pediatric surgeon and put in tubes like I have so parents can see me and say, ‘She’s alive and OK. My kid’s going to be OK.'”

She said the Kent City High School staff helped her keep on track. “The teachers are so good,” she said. “They have been so good with me. Tests. Work. They’ll stay after, anytime. They’ll come in early. Anytime I need help they’re there for me. If it wasn’t for them, I couldn’t have done it.”

She’s also a student in the Health Science Early College Academy’s biomedical technology program (a satellite of Kent Career Tech Center). She takes dual enrollment classes at Grand Rapids Community College.

Jeff Wilson, director of student services, has provided Alexis with academic counseling.

“She’s driven, she’s a hard worker,” he said. “She’s able to stay very focused, considering the trials and tribulations she’s had. She’s not a quitter and she’s a finisher. She finishes what she starts. She’s always able to wear a smile on her face during all the adversity.”

Alexis’ mother, Mindy Hickman, said her daughter already helped a young girl who also uses a feeding tube who she met at Lake Ann Camp last summer. “The girl was embarrassed, and Alexis helped her understand, it’s OK that we’re different.”

She has turned negatives into positives.

Healthy and Happy“We’re so extremely proud of her and her dedication,” her mother said. “She’s an overall amazing young lady and we are excited to see what God has planned for her.”

Alexis said her disease has had a major impact on how she lives her life.

“I always say getting Crohn’s Disease and my feeding tube has been the greatest thing that has ever happened to me,” she said. “But I would never give it to anybody else because it sucks. It completely changed my life in the way that I see people. People look at me and they feel bad for me, but I look at myself and I feel blessed, because I know there are people with more issues than I have.”

She has had to readjust her goals, but that’s OK, she said.

“Before I had Crohn’s, school was so important to me,” she said. “I wanted good grades. I wanted to be in the top three in the class. Those were my goals in life. I think it’s all about perspective. Life is about more than that.”

“I’m healthy. I’m happy. I feel good. I wake up in the morning and I want to get out of bed.”


Read the whole series: Grads With Grit

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America


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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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