(EDITOR'S NOTE: The Rapid City Journal followed St. Thomas More junior Ali Nowotny through surgery at Mayo Clinic to have a mass removed from her brain. On Monday, she returned to school for the first time since the operation.)
Ali Nowotny walks into the St. Thomas More cafeteria and her cheerleading and dance teammates make a beeline for her. They quickly surround her, giving her hugs one at a time.
It's awkward at first. No one seems to know exactly what to say, including Ali. But after a few minutes, talk turns to school, cheerleading and Ali's surgery.
It's been just 18 days since a neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota removed a mass in Ali's left temporal lobe. Following the surgery, doctors discovered that the mass contained no tumor cells. Instead, they called it abnormal growth and hope that by removing it, Ali's epileptic seizures will stop.
As Ali and her More teammates chat, her father Craig Nowotny stands back against a wall watching with a small smile on his face. So far, Ali seems to have few effects from the surgery, other than fatigue, he said. Doctors at Mayo warned her, however, that the surgery would affect her ability to retain new memories.
Earlier Monday morning, Ali said she has not noticed any problems yet. She jokes that her brother Dusty helped her with chemistry and she was just as confused by it now as she was before the surgery.
As for difficulty finding the right words, a possible side effect of brain surgery, Ali has not noticed any changes there either. "I didn't have a very big vocabulary before anyway," she said with another smile.
After her teammates finish with their hugs, Ali reaches up to remove the white hat she wore to school. "I'll show you the scar if you want," she says. "Everyone like it?"
Ali's scar runs along the hairline from the top of her head down to her left ear, an impressive scar made all the more prominent by Ali's short, short hair.
Prior to surgery, Ali's friends dyed her long hair a variety of colors and gradually cut it into different hairstyles, each shorter than the last. By the time she arrived at Mayo Clinic, she had a jet black Mohawk with Ali Tough - her motto - shaved into the back.
After surgery, Ali's grandmother helped her shave off the Mohawk and the Ali Tough motto. The black dye job is fading now, and Ali's natural brown hair is growing in.
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After 10 minutes or so, Craig Nowotny, the Catholic school's athletic director, shoos the girls back to class and Ali finally makes her way to her first class of the day: Religion. She stops briefly at her locker. "Gosh, I can't believe I'm back at school," she says.
It's a thought echoed by those around her. Less than three weeks earlier, doctors were inside Ali's brain. Yet Monday morning, aside from her scar, Ali looks like any other healthy More junior.
Before closing her locker, Ali hesitates before putting her hat inside. "Hats give me headaches, so I hope people don't mind the scar," she says, and then she ducks into "Brother H's" class.
Herard Jean-Noel, known by More students as Brother H, visited Ali in the hospital at Mayo after her surgery. Ali only remembers a little of the visit, but he sat with her for nearly two hours.
Brother H stops briefly to welcome her back and then continues with his assignment. When he's finished, classmate Brittany Zetah gets up from her back-row seat and walks to the front to give Ali a hug. Ali's eyes fill with tears as other classmates join them.
The next weeks will be important for Ali as she regains her strength and evaluates whether the surgery affected her ability to retain new information, especially in school. She can't return to the cheer and dance teams for another four weeks, but she isn't complaining. "I'm going to take it slow," she says.
For now, just being home is enough.
Contact Lynn Taylor Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 394-8414.
Date: December 16th, 2008
Follow Ali Nowotny's journey as she travels to Minnesota to undergo brain surgery to remove a brain tumor.