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In her dreams, Ali Nowotny still has seizures.

They usually come in the nights leading up to her annual check-ups at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

At first, Nowotny worried she was actually re-experiencing the "blanking-out" type of seizures that once left her with slurred speech, blinding headaches and little memory afterward. But her friend and "mother figure," Carol Cooper, reassured her. The seizures weren't real. They existed only in her mind - only in her dream life.

It has been three years since Nowotny made the long trip to Minnesota to have a golf-ball sized mass removed from the left temporal lobe of her brain. Three years since the Journal followed her journey, garnering an outpouring of community support.

And three years since she had her last seizure.

"I haven't had one in so long, so it's kind of nice to have a hard time remembering what they were like," she said while sipping a cup of Starbucks coffee on New Year's Day.

On Dec. 22, 2011, Nowotny's neurologist at Mayo cleared her to stop taking seizure medication, drugs she has needed daily for the past seven years.

"She told me it's a really low, low chance that I'd ever have one again," Nowotny said of her seizures. Nowotny would prefer a 100-percent assurance that she will never have a seizure again, but she has learned over the past several years that those kinds of assurances are few and far between in the world of brain surgery.

Instead, she is embracing the good news and looking to her future.

"I feel like I can move on with life," she said.

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Nowotny's journey began in 2006 while working for her aunt at a local coffee shop. Her aunt noticed Nowotny would sink into an almost trance-like state from time to time, staring and motionless for long minutes.

Nowotny said she realizes now that the episodes of "blanking out," as she once called them, had been going on for as long as she could remember. "I just thought they were normal," she said.

They weren't.

At first, doctors believed the seizures, called partial complex seizures, were caused by unexplained scarring in Nowotny's brain. They started her on medication to control the condition, which is officially a form of epilepsy.

Within a year, they changed the diagnosis when they saw growth in what they had believed was scarring. They changed their diagnosis.

It was a tumor, they told her, a tumor that needed to come out.

At the time, Nowotny was a 17-year-old junior at St. Thomas More, preparing for the state cheer and dance championships. She asked doctors to push the surgery back so she could compete. They agreed and Nowotny's team went on to win the Class A Team Dance Championship.

A month later, she and her father, Craig Nowotny, were on their way to Mayo for the surgery.

Nowotny's mother died of cancer when Nowotny was just 4 years old. Craig raised both Ali and her older brother, Dusty, essentially on his own. But they didn't go through the surgery alone.

The waiting rooms at Mayo were filled with aunts, a grandmother, Cooper and a slew of other family and friends. Text messages and cards from Rapid City flowed throughout the days prior to surgery, which included a frightening brain-paralyzing procedure called the Wada test and countless other scans and exams.

Craig Nowotny was at his daughter's side through it all.

The five-hour surgery took place on Dec. 22 in Saint Marys Hospital at Mayo, a massive maze-like building at the prestigious medical center. Nowotny's neurosurgeon warned her days before he operated that any surgery in the brain has potential for lasting damage. The Wada test showed that Nowotny's mass, which was eventually found to be benign tissue, was in an area that controlled memory and verbal skills. She would have to work harder in the future, harder at school, harder at remembering.

But the surgery gave her a 70- to 80-percent chance of becoming seizure-free.

Three years later, those odds have proved to be in her favor.

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Nowotny is 20 now, a self-assured young woman with pale green eyes and a sweet smile. Her hair is long and dark, a drastic contrast to the multi-color buzz cut she sported as she prepared for surgery three years ago. Gone is the "Ali Tough" logo shaved into the back of her hair. Gone is the teenager with a nervous giggle.

Nowotny said she recently looked back at the Journal stories and video about her surgery in 2008, marveling at her apparent calm.

"I don't know how I did it," she said. "Deep down inside, I wanted to scream."

Nowotny is a sophomore at Minnesota State University in Mankato, working toward a career in drug and alcohol counseling. She still cheers, performing for the Mavericks' basketball and football teams. While she doesn't dwell on her brain surgery or the experience as a whole, Nowotny said it's impossible not to consider how it affected her.

"I just grew up in an instant," she said.

True to her neurosurgeon's predictions, Nowotny has had to work harder at remembering. Instead of reading a new word three times, she must read it 30 times now, she said. "I feel like my vocabulary hasn't broadened at all."

Despite her frustration, Nowotny said she keeps trying. "I've learned different ways to study," she said. "I need to do it over and over again. Now, it feels normal because I'm used to it."

She said both Cooper and her father helped her adjust in the months after her surgery, discouraging her from using it as an excuse while supporting her as she adjusted to her new normal.

"You can't use it as an excuse not to do well," she said. "I realized I did have to make changes."

Like most people who have gone through life-changing medical experiences, Nowotny believes some good came from it all. She feels gratitude for the simplest things now -- being able to walk, talk and even smile evenly on both sides of her face.

"When little dramas come up, I'm like ‘Ehh,'" she said. "There's way more to life."

And while she doesn't obsess about her experience, Nowotny said she has learned to accept it for what it was - a terrifying experience that taught her a lot about her ability to persevere.

"I feel like it kind of made me who I am now," she said.

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

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