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Her hair is longer now and dark brown.

The Ali Tough motto once shaved into the back is gone, and so is the blue tint.

But beneath her growing hair, Ali Nowotny still sports a crescent-shaped scar running from the top of her forehead to her left ear. That's where doctors at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., removed a benign mass that caused Ali to have debilitating headaches and epileptic seizures for two years.

The seizures are gone now. Ali hasn't had one since her surgery on Dec. 19. She's been able to return to school, participate in cheer and dance, track and even attend her junior prom at St. Thomas More, wearing her late mother's prom dress.

Still, the transition back to normal life hasn't been easy. Expectations from other people and from herself left the 18-year-old feeling emotionally and physically drained at times. And as doctors warned her, the surgery affected Ali's memory.

Yet for Ali, one of the hardest things to accept has been the fear.

School tests that wouldn't have worried her before the surgery can now push her to tears. It's been baffling for her and for her dad, Craig Nowotny. "He hates it when I cry," Ali said with a smile.

Ali said a therapist explained that her brain surgery may have caused her to process fear differently, but the explanation doesn't make it any easier. "The worst part is the emotions," Ali said. "Even the last couple of days, freaking about the ACTs."

It also took Ali time to accept that her memory has been affected.

Sitting in the neurosurgeon's office at Mayo Clinic before the surgery, Ali listened as the doctor warned her about memory changes. She promised to study harder. But saying it and accepting it are two different things.

Ali said it took about seven tests before she admitted to herself just how much had changed. Instead of one night of study, she now needs several nights. "It kind of scared me, sometimes," she said.

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Increasing her study time, combined with teachers who allowed her to take more time and test in quiet rooms, helped her adjust. By the school year's end, schoolwork had become more manageable. "My dad would always remind me what I said in the doctor's office," she said. "It took me a while to realize I really need to work harder."

Ali was thrilled to discover, however, that her memory deficits didn't spill over into her cheer and dance activities. Although she spends a little more time memorizing routines than she used to, she finds that it comes fairly easily.

In the first months after her surgery, Ali said, she faced a challenge she never expected: She struggled to settle back into the routine of life. After her school and community rallied around her before her surgery, Ali said she had grown accustomed to the attention. As her incision healed and time went on, people justifiably treated her like regular Ali again.

It came as a shock, especially as Ali struggled with things that others couldn't see. She remembers friends growing concerned when the stimulation from a loud radio and a basketball game sent her into tears. She also remembers being frustrated when even her brother, Dusty, admitted he thought she should be back to normal.

Eventually, with the help of her friend Carol Cooper, Ali said she learned to move beyond the surgery and focus on the future. The sensitivities to sound and activities grew less acute, and she began to settle into her life again. Ali laughs when she remembers "Cooper" telling her she wasn't the "center of attention anymore. Get used to it."

Ali did.

On Thursday, the gregarious teenager turned 18, and after the year she has had, Ali said she is looking forward to the summer.

She said the past year has been like a dream, "one of those chaotic dreams," but she knows that a life without seizures made it all worthwhile. "It got better and better," she said of her recovery. "It just takes time."

Contact Lynn Taylor Rick at 394-8414 or lynn.taylorrick@rapidcityjournal.com.

Title: Ali's Journey

Date: December 16th, 2008

Follow Ali Nowotny's journey as she travels to Minnesota to undergo brain surgery to remove a brain tumor.

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