On graduation day, 17-year-old Sarah Mighell accomplished an amazing feat. But for her, it wasn't the fact that she received her high school diploma. It wasn't even that she also simultaneously received her associate's degree. For Sarah, it was the act of physically walking across the stage that was a dream come true.
Sarah, who was born with a neuromuscular disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT), successfully walked across the stage to receive her diploma during graduation on May 24 from Copper Mountain College in California, only months after receiving reconstructive surgery to both feet.
"I can't imagine being any more proud of her than in that moment," said her father, Matt Mighell.
Former area resident Sarah Mighell is a model of determination and inspiration. (Photo courtesy the Mighell family)
Sarah grew up in Salem and Leetonia, where she attended Heartland Christian School, played softball, and even appeared in Sheely's long-running "Every Day's a Holiday" commercial. Sarah was diagnosed with CMT - which causes progressive loss of muscle tissue and touch sensation - when she was 4. The disease slowly progressed, until she hit a growth spurt in 5th grade that caused her to struggle.
"My ankles would give out," Sarah said. "And then I started limping."
When she was 8 years old, Sarah and her family had moved to California for the health benefits of the entire family. Sarah, her brother Josh, and her sister, Abby, all have CMT, although Sarah's plight is the most severe. Their mother, Diana, won a 10-year battle with lupus. Sarah believes the dry, sunny weather in California benefited the entire family which moved to the Palm Springs area in 2004. Sarah and her siblings have been home schooled by their parents since 2009. The family now lives in Desert Hot Springs, California.
"We all just grew with the sunshine," Sarah said.
But Sarah still struggled. Her CMT began to weaken her leg muscles and twist her feet so that walking was painful and only possible with the help of orthotics. By the time she was 12, her left foot became so deformed that she shrank from a shoe size nine to a four, and her entire body weight was concentrated on a one-inch area at the front of her foot.
"It got to the point where I could barely walk. It couldn't go on much longer," she said.
Sarah had to wait until her feet stopped growing, usually between the ages of 15 and 17, until she could receive the reconstructive foot surgery she needed. Her parents spent years searching the country for the right surgeon who was capable of doing the surgery. Last November, they found Dr. Glenn Pfeffer, who all along had been only two hours away at the Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.
"We walked in not knowing what to expect," Sarah said. "Then he just looked at me and said 'I know what to do.'"
Pfeffer had decades of surgical experience working with neuromuscular issues related to CMT, making him a qualified candidate for the surgery Sarah needed. But Sarah clicked with him for another reason.
"I always wanted to be a dancer," said Sarah who was excited to learn that Pfeffer was the co-director of the Dance Medicine Center at Cedars, and a consultant for "Dancing with the Stars" television show. "These things just fell together. He had pictures on his wall of ballerinas he has helped in the past."
Sarah underwent her first foot surgery last January, which involved taking the twisted bones and reassembling them together into a functioning foot. After the surgery, Sarah was required to wear a "big, huge, heavy cast for two weeks" that prevented her from doing most activities, and then a regular cast, as well as attend physical therapy. While her right foot was still healing, Sarah had to undergo the same procedure all over again, this time on her left foot.
Throughout her surgeries and rehabilitation, Sarah was a full-time student and enrolled in classes that allowed her to simultaneously work toward her high school diploma and college degree. She missed many days of class due to her surgery, and when she was able to attend it was a struggle to remain focused.
"Because of the medication, a lot of the time I just wanted to sleep," she said.
With the help of tutoring, understanding professors, and pure determination, Sarah earned with honors her diploma and associate's degree. She graduated with distinction as a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.
Sarah did have two more goals to accomplish. "She wanted to walk at graduation, and she wanted to wear cute shoes," Matt said. Not what, as Sarah called them "old man shoes" that she had to wear for years.
So on graduation day, with the guidance of her mom's arm, Sarah took those steps across the stage to receive her diploma in front of a supportive audience.
"Everyone was yelling and clapping, but it took me a really long time. So then it would all die down," Sarah laughingly. "But then they'd be like 'Oh, she's still going' and they'd clap again."
"As parents, we just want to put the tools in our kids hands to succeed,"?Matt said. "And she literally ran - or walked - with it."
Today, Sarah is taking a semester off to prepare for her two final surgeries this year. In January, she plans to return to school, where she hopes to earn her bachelor's degree by age 19, and then attend medical school to be a surgeon. Her father is sure she will succeed.
"Whatever she decides to do, I can't think of a barrier," he said. "She has the capability, intelligence, determination, and obvious blessing from God."
And for others out there who may be struggling while trying to finish school, Sarah has some words of advice.
"Just think, 'when I get this, how good will it feel?' Then it's done and you have your degree. And then you get to see what's next."