MICDS grad achieves greatness despite hardship

Gabrielle Harris

BY JESSICA GOLDBERG Freshman, John Burroughs School

Imagine waking up one day completely cross eyed with no way to fix it. Gabrielle Harris, a 2013 graduate of Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School, lived this terrifying nightmare. 

“It started during my freshman year when I suffered from terrible headaches that everyone thought were migraines,” said Harris, a congregant at Central Reform Congregation. 

Harris continued to experience many unexplained symptoms well into her sophomore year. Gradually, her illness started significantly impacting her ability to function in her everyday life.  

“While playing tennis, I started experiencing double vision,” Harris said. “I saw two balls flying toward my face and didn’t know which one to hit.”

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Harris quickly began seeing a slew of doctors and undergoing a battery of neurological tests. The diagnosis was alarming; pseudotumor cerebri, often referred to as Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension.  

“This is a condition that almost exclusively affects girls and women,” Dr. Gregory Van Stavern, Washington University Associate Professor, Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and Neurology, and Director of Visual Electrophysiology Services said.  “It is generally considered rare. Most estimates are two in 100,000 in the general population. The biggest issues patients have to deal with are the symptoms: headache most commonly, and most seriously, vision loss.” 

However, Harris was determined not to allow her disease to destroy her high school career. As she continued to take medications, wear an eye patch and undergo procedures such as draining excess spinal fluid, Harris’s positive attitude and determination persevered.

“The doctors didn’t allow me to play sports my entire sophomore year,” Harris said.  “I was determined to get back into sports. During my junior year, I played tennis, squash and soccer. After working on my tennis at a Nike tennis camp for two summers, I made the varsity tennis team in the fall of my senior year.”

Harris’s tennis coach at MICDS, Cameron Thomas, marveled at her cheerful attitude. He emphasized her amazing focus and resolve in striving to achieve her personal goals.  

“Gabby has a strong desire to succeed; but what makes her special is her unwavering willingness to work hard to reach what she is aiming for,” Thomas said.

Athletics were not the only area where Harris had to work hard to make up lost ground from her battle with pseudotumor.  She had to overcome academic hurdles as well. 

“I had to drop down to only five classes while experiencing my eye problems,” Harris said. “So it was a challenge to bring my schedule back up. I took three AP classes in my junior and senior years, and it was a big achievement to graduate MICDS with first honors.  I am excited and proud to be attending the business school at the University of Southern California in the fall.”

Harris turned to Judaism for strength and support during her medical ordeal. Her Jewish beliefs offered her a healing connection during challenging times.

“I started going more often to temple,” Harris said.  “For me, it was about renewing my faith in God and finding comfort in my Jewish faith. I am happy and proud to have grown up Jewish and would like to become more dedicated to Judaism.”

Harris emphasized how much her parents and family motivated her to never abandon her dreams while fighting the devastating consequences of pseudotumor. As the granddaughter of the late Whitney R. Harris, courtroom prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials, Harris had diligence and courage in her genes. 

“My grandfather always supported me, and he had a tremendous influence on me,” Harris said.  “I fought hard against my health issues for my family and myself.”

In addition to setting and achieving high goals for herself athletically and academically, Harris also passionately immersed herself in community service efforts. She experienced enormous pleasure and joy from helping others less fortunate.

“Project Play was created by a group of students at MICDS,” Harris said. “We visited an inner city school [North Side Community School] and began fundraising to build them a new playground. After many months of hosting bake sales, collecting bottle caps, collecting donations from parents, and a variety of other fundraisers, we raised above and beyond our expectations to build the playground.”

Nancy Richardson, Director of Community Service at MICDS, praised Harris’s deep commitment to Project Play. She highlighted Harris’s creativity and zest as she saw the project through to its completion.

“Gabby was involved with Project Play from day one and attended almost every fundraiser we had,” Richardson said. “She was always full of great ideas and enthusiasm and brought new energy to every phase of the project. I could always count on her to jump in whenever needed and was even able to call on her last minute to present about the completed project to the entire upper school.”

Even after the playground project reached its conclusion, Harris’s interest and involvement at North Side continued. She was excited to see the children enjoy the fruits of her labor.

“I didn’t want to see my relationship with the school and its students end,” Harris said. “Thirty-five seniors created a field day experience for the kids at North Side. We went to their school and set up stations and activities to run a traditional field day.”

In reflecting on her experiences as a high school student battling a difficult and rare medical condition, Harris provided an inspirational message. She represents the sense of hope and accomplishment that stem from knowing you have worked your hardest to make things better.

“Be a good person and have a good heart,” Harris said. “You cannot always anticipate what is going to happen to you. While you can’t control what life brings your way, you can control how you deal with it and how you overcome it.”

Harris expressed her appreciation for having her vision restored and what it meant to have had something so precious almost taken away. Her words resonated at a time of introspection as we celebrate the Jewish New Year. 

“Most importantly, people should stop worrying about what they don’t have and be grateful for all they do have. Live and appreciate life in the moment,” Harris said.  •