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Editor’s Note: This story was written by Jonah Stafford.

With a 4.0 GPA and a bright future ahead of her, nothing was going to slow down 15-year-old De’Marria Gardner, until one day in September 2018. In her own words, she felt that her “life was cut short.”

Now 19 years old, Gardner is nearing the end of her freshman year at her “dream school,” Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. She is studying biology on the pre-veterinary science track. She said that her long term goal is to become a veterinarian or zoologist.

Gardner is also passionate about music. She said she enjoys karaoke and has even dabbled into songwriting. “I wrote a song but I don’t think I’m gonna take it any further than that,” said Gardner, who intends to remain focused on her studies and career aspirations.

To those who do not know her story, Gardner could appear to be just another hard working college student. However, after facing a litany of obstacles over the past few years, she knows more than most how challenging it can be to fight for your dreams.

Growing up in Ashburn, Illinois, De’Marria Gardner had a pretty typical childhood. Though she was diagnosed with a chronic stomach illness at 8 years old, Gardner said she excelled inside and outside of school.

Two weeks into her sophomore year of high school, complications during a routine endoscopy changed Gardner’s life forever. Gardner said she was put under anesthesia so a camera could be put into her stomach so doctors could locate a blockage. After the procedure was completed, she was unable to wake up. 

Though Gardner was completely unresponsive, she said she remembers hearing her mother and all of the doctors in the room “freaking out” as her routine procedure turned into a medical emergency. Her anesthetic coma ultimately lasted three months.

As Gardner’s coma continued, the chances of her waking up and being able to recover decreased dramatically. To doctors, Gardner explained, “after 3 months you’re a vegetable.”

While she was in a coma, Gardner said she received visits from her mother, grandparents, uncle, friends, and her then-boyfriend. She said that many of these same people later supported her on her road to recovery after waking up.

When Gardner finally woke up from her coma, she said that she was able to open her eyes, but her body remained paralyzed. “It freaked me out,” said Gardner. 

Gardner said that shortly after waking up from the coma, her physical and mental states were evaluated by various professionals.

Being unable to talk, walk, clean, or feed herself were among the difficulties Gardner said she encountered early in her recovery. She also experienced what she called “sleep comas,” where she slept for several days at a time.

After two months of receiving treatment from Rush University Medical Center, Gardner said she was told she would never walk again and was released.

Gardner was then moved to the University of Illinois Chicago Hospital, where she said she was quickly released again due to a lack of progression.

After being turned away by two hospitals, Gardner said she ultimately received rehabilitation services from her mother, who started her own physical therapy practice at home. “My mom is really the person who got me back to where I was,” Gardner said of her recovery. 

Slowly but surely, Gardner successfully relearned how to walk: going from using a wheelchair to a walker to a cane to now walking without any sort of aid. 

Despite relearning basic functions, due to the physical and mental toll of being in a coma, as well as her preexisting stomach condition, Gardner said that she has been officially classified as handicapped since age 15. 

After taking a little under a year off of school to recover from her coma, Gardner managed to graduate on time. She said she achieved this by taking sophomore classes via homeschooling, at the same time as her junior year of high school.

Though her unique set of circumstances meant that she missed out on some opportunities when it came to college readiness, Gardner said that she “wouldn’t change it.” 

When Gardner graduated from high school, she received one of the biggest scholarships in the country, a Jordan Wings Scholarship, sponsored by basketball superstar Michael Jordan.

Shortly after being awarded, Gardner said that she was presented with an opportunity to meet Vice President Kamala Harris and discuss her story of overcoming adversity, but had to turn it down due to a religious commitment.

Along with support from family and friends, Gardner said that her Christian faith played a large role in helping her through the recovery process.

“He is the most important person in my life now,” Gardner said of her relationship with Jesus Christ.

 Looking beyond her college graduation, Gardner has big dreams for her future. She said she sees being married and starting a family as a strong possibility for the near future. Gardner also said she plans on starting an organization to help teenagers who are dealing with medical challenges similar to her own.

After all that she has been through, De’Marria Gardner is more determined than ever that anything is possible, as she inches closer to her dream of becoming a veterinarian or zoologist. 

As Gardner said, “I was supposed to be a vegetable but here I am.”

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