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Mikayla Bass used to wonder if this day would ever come. It’s hard to imagine finishing college when you can’t type a paper because your fingers won’t move. Or can’t read a book because your eyes see double. Or can’t put on your clothes and brush your teeth because you can’t lift a hand.
Bass came to St. Mary’s University in the fall of 2012 on a volleyball scholarship. A year and a half later, she couldn’t do a push up. In January 2014, Bass was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, also known as MG, a life-threatening neuromuscular disorder for which there is no cure.
The disease is the result of a collapse in communication between nerves and muscles. The disorder affects voluntary muscle movement, from lifting a finger to opening an eye. For Bass, MG made it difficult to swallow, at times almost impossible to breathe.
MG is rare – roughly 20 out of 100,000 people are afflicted – but debilitating, causing Bass to leave volleyball and drop out of school. Over the past two years, she has fainted, lapsed into unconsciousness, and been rushed to the hospital. She’s battled severe headaches and wrestled with viral meningitis.
After missing two semesters, Bass returned to school as an online student in January 2015, taking specially-designed classes from her home in Flower Mound.
“It’s been pretty tough,” she said. “The disease affects all my muscles and lungs.”
And yet here she stands in the Bill Greehey Arena, robed in cap and gown, diploma in hand. “It’s real exciting,” said Bass, who earned a degree in sociology. “There were definitely times I didn’t know if I would graduate.”
Her sister, Kathryn Williams, and her service dog, Ava, assisted Bass across the stage. It didn’t take a village to help her complete the journey. It took an army. There were soldiers in Flower Mound, troops at St. Mary’s, commanders throughout clinics and hospitals. They worked collaboratively and sacrificially, and Mikayla Bass can identify each one by name.
Adam Gibson, for example, changed her life. When Bass needed a trainer for her service dog, she went to Gibson who owns Top Dog Professional Training in Burleson. Gibson trained her dog, Ava, and became so impressed with Bass’ passion for animals, he offered her an internship. The internship led to a job, where she trains dogs to develop a scent for insulin. The job will lead to part-ownership of a breeding business for service dogs.
“We are moving to Burleson so she can be part of the business,” said Kelly Bass, Mikayla’s mother. “Adam entered into the relationship with the full understanding that Mikayla might not be able to perform at all times. But he wanted to support her passion even though she has MG. Adam and his wife, Andrea, embraced Mikayla from day one.”
Mikayla not only leaves commencement with a job. She begins with a clear path to business ownership and a schedule designed to accommodate MG. “I have the most amazing boss,” she said.
Before the ink dries on her diploma, Mikayla will have leaped ahead of almost every graduating peer while struggling, at times, to walk. “Sometimes there’s general fatigue in her legs,” Kelly said, “and sometimes she falls because the muscles simply give out.”
There was an electric spring in her step at Coppell High in North Texas. As a freshman, Mikayla played on the Class 5A state championship soccer team. As a senior, she starred on the state championship volleyball team. A 5-foot-9 setter at St. Mary’s, she ranked second in assists as a sophomore with 425. Then suddenly, she grew mysteriously weak and fatigued.
Almost everything important to her vanished. When Mikayla dropped out of school, she left behind the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, where she served as president, her strong academic standing as a psychology major and a starring role on the volleyball team.
Months later, her older brother Nick suffered serious head injuries in a car accident that killed his best friend. Then her father Mike was diagnosed with prostate cancer. All the while, Mikayla battled a disease that could end her life.
The muscle failure varied not simply day to day but from hour to hour. “I can have double vision in both eyes, then my vision can go back to normal, but my legs stop working,” she said.
MG makes it virtually impossible for her to drive. At any moment, she may lose her ability to steer or brake. The disease also affects verbal expression. “If my lips or facial muscles aren’t working,” she said, “it’s difficult to speak and I can slur my words.”
Unable to perform basic human functions, it appeared Mikayla would not finish college. But then the university called with an extraordinary gift: A team of professors had designed a set of online courses for Mikayla so she could complete degree requirements without leaving home.
“I was completely shaken and overwhelmed,” Kelly said. “They embraced her in a way that brought me to my knees.“
Celine Jacquemin, associate dean for humanities and social sciences, coordinated the course design effort. Jacquemin and her colleagues recognized they couldn’t create an online path for a degree in psychology, Mikayla’s original major. So they designed one in sociology. The degree plan included several courses – with classes in sociology, anthropology and theology – plus a senior capstone seminar.
“We wanted to make sure her degree would be as strong as that of any other students who would be graduating,” Jacquemin said. “Mikayla was an inspiring student to all of us. All of us on the team felt blessed to be given the opportunity to help Mikayla.”
There were approximately 270 students at Saturday’s commencement exercises. Only one had another person and a service dog accompany her across the stage. Throats tightened. Tears flowed.
Athletic director Liz Dalton welled up two days before the ceremony. She recalled the fundraising efforts to benefit Mikayla – known to family and friends as “bear” – and the grace she displayed through so much trauma: the injured brother, who has recovered; the cancer-stricken father, whose disease is in remission; the disease that wreaked havoc on Mikayla’s body.
“She’s had a tremendous impact here,” Dalton said. “She’s been an inspiration. Student athletes have led a ‘battle for bear’ campaign to support her personally and financially. Students on their own have continued ‘battle for bear’ efforts. Other athletes want her story to continue. I’m getting a little emotional here. ….”
Dalton’s voice cracked. She continued: “I’ve been at some really special places but this one tops them all. Mikayla knows how to fight and she clearly is still fighting. But she’s won by walking across that stage. She’s won.”
Kelly said the family has asked: Why Mikayla? Athletic, beautiful, outgoing, intelligent – she was full of faith and promise when MG struck. Why her? In the throes of the disease, Mikayla has become a light, shining brighter than ever.
“Everyone loves ‘bear’,” Kelly said. “She’s a people person. She’s a bright, bubbly young lady. So we have all resigned to the fact that she will honor God better than anyone else in this process. Therefore, that’s ‘why her.’”
Mikayla’s best friend and inspiration is Ava, her service dog. Ava retrieves objects for Mikayla, opens doors for her, turns lights on and off. If Mikayla has an emergency, Ava can push a 911 button for help.
“She’s been a lifesaver for me,” Mikayla said.
If not for MG, Mikayla would not have found Ava. Without Ava, Mikayla would not have found her calling to train service dogs. “Ava has made a difference for me,” Mikayla said. “I want to give that to other people.”
She intends to spend the rest of her life giving. Saturday afternoon, Mikayla delivered a gift of hope, climbing a stage and walking into a future, gleaming with promise.