JEFFERSON - Throughout her life, 26-year-old Mary Beckwith occasionally experienced odd moments of feeling sick, where she would suffer from headaches, feel nauseous, lose her vision for a few moments or even slur her speech.
When these "episodes," as she calls them, occurred, she would brush them off as just her being dizzy, nothing to be too concerned about.
But this past year, the episodes became more frequent and more serious. One scary moment came when Beckwith, a 2002 graduate of Jefferson Area High School who teaches 12th-grade government at the Ashtabula County Joint Vocational School, passed out in the street in front of Jefferson Model UN students while attending a convention in Chicago in February of 2010.
That was the most serious episode for awhile, but then her symptoms came to a head this past summer.
"I got really sick in August, to the point where I couldn't stand, I couldn't see," Beckwith said.
At this point, Beckwith, the daughter of Monica and Roger Beckwith of Jefferson, went to her family doctor, who at first thought she might have pulled a neck muscle. When the medicine for that ailment didn't work, her doctor then considered vertigo.
That diagnosis also turned out to be false, and the doctor then sent Beckwith to a specialist. The specialist conducted a hearing test, but then told Beckwith that while he doesn't normally send 26 year olds for an MRI, he was going to with her.
"And that's how we found it," Beckwith said.
After learning the results of the MRI, the physician diagnosed Beckwith with Chiari I malformation (CM), a congenital malformation in which there is downward displacement of brain tissues into the spinal canal. Essentially, the back compartment of the skull is formed too small and results in crowding of the neurological tissues.
"It's hard to diagnose because there's so many different symptoms," Beckwith said.
The crowding and blockage caused by CM often brings on neurological symptoms, including headaches, dizziness and blurred vision, among others. The condition also can cause problems for the spine.
Physicians believe some people are born with CM, Beckwith said. She said they suspect it's tied to genetics, but they have been unable to find the genetic marker so they aren't sure.
Some people can have CM and never show the symptoms of it, Beckwith said.
"I'm really lucky. They don't believe I have anything wrong with my spine," Beckwith said.
The reassurance that nothing was wrong with her spine and that her doctor believed he could help relieve her pain were two of the things that helped Beckwith deal with her fear after she initially was diagnosed.
"To me, (the initial diagnosis) was devastating," Beckwith said. "But there were so many unknowns."
As one of the people who did show symptoms, Beckwith would have to undergo surgery to relieve them. The surgery would help shrink - not remove - the malformation.
"Basically, they make room for it," Beckwith said.
There's no other treatment for the condition besides surgery, Beckwith said. She chose to have the surgery performed at the Cleveland Clinic, under the direction of Dr. Mark Luciano.
"He recommended surgery right away. (The malformation) was huge," Beckwith said.
Beckwith underwent surgery on Jan. 20, 2011. Although not everything went smoothly, so far the surgery seems to have been a success in terms of relieving Beckwith's symptoms.
"I am very thankful for the amazing doctor I had at the Cleveland Clinic and for the research that has been done to date about this disorder," Beckwith said.
Although it's only been a few months since her surgery, Beckwith isn't going to let the brain surgery stop her from doing the things she loves.
She has decided to channel the experience into something positive. As part of her recovery, she plans to run in the Rite-Aid Cleveland Half-Marathon on May 15.
Beckwith said she is dedicating her run to the Chiari Malformation and Syringomyelia Foundation as a thank you.
Beckwith has only been running long distances for a little over a year.
"I just decided that I was going to run a 5K, and I went out and did it," Beckwith said. "I always liked to be active and work out, but I wanted to try something new."
Finishing a race became a personal goal for Beckwith, and her first race was a 5K on St. Patrick's Day in Erie, Pa. a little more than a year ago. Since then, she has run in a number of races, including two half-marathons.
Even her doctor is surprised that she would want to run a half marathon so soon after brain surgery, but he has been supportive of her decision, considering her the exception to the rule.
"He's been very positive and encouraging," Beckwith said.
Beckwith said her doctor told her that she would probably be off work for eight weeks - and that she wouldn't feel like running any time in the near future. Instead, Beckwith returned to teaching part time three weeks after her surgery and went back full time after five weeks.
"I was just bound and determined to overcome everything," Beckwith said. "I didn't want to sit at home."
Although her symptoms have been gone since the surgery, Beckwith still experiences some complications from the surgery, including numbness in her left leg. She has motor functions but no sensation in it, making her decision to run the half marathon even more remarkable.
"I have to be careful and watch my feet," Beckwith said. "It's like my foot has fallen asleep."
Whether or not the complication is permanent is still undetermined, but Beckwith's doctor said it's a good thing she's running on it and keeping the blood flowing.
"He says I'm a 'little ambitious, and he likes ambition," Beckwith said.
For many people the condition can be a lifelong battle, but Beckwith has been lucky that her symptoms, so far, have not returned since the surgery.
Beckwith's philosophy has been to stay positive.
"Everything happens for a reason, whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger and I can overcome anything I put my mind to," Beckwith said.
Beckwith also believes that it was important for her students to see her keep a positive attitude and remain determined to recover from the surgery and return to school.
As her surgery approached, Beckwith spoke with her students about her condition and what they could expect - before and after the surgery.
"It was very evident when I was having a bad day," Beckwith said of the weeks leading up to the surgery.
Returning to her teaching duties so soon after brain surgery was unexpected for her students, but Beckwith believes it was good for them to see her overcome her condition.
"I think it has been really important for my students at school to see someone living this," Beckwith said.
She said one thing she stresses to her students is the need to say "thank you," no matter how big or how small the action.
Beckwith herself has many people to thank and be grateful for, including her physicians and the support from her parents and siblings Donna Bair and Joanne Beckwith, among other family and friends.
"My family has been positive since the beginning," Beckwith said.
To continue that thanks, Beckwith is dedicating her run in the Cleveland Half-Marathon to the Chiari Malformation and Syringomyelia Foundation. The foundation sponsors research, support groups and awareness about Chiari and other disorders of the spine.
People wishing to help Beckwith raise money for the foundation and the marathon can do so in two ways.
Online, they can visit the Chiari Malformation and Syringomyelia Foundation's website at www.csfinfo.org. On the left-hand side of the page, there is a link that says "Donate Online." Click it, and then click the "Donate Online" link on that page and fill out the information.
Beckwith asks that any donations be made to the Research Fund (under the "Designation" field of the form). On the Comments box, people should put "A 13.1 thank you."
People also can send their donations directly to Beckwith through the mail. Checks should be made payable to CSF and include a note of "A 13.1 thank you" on the memo line. Checks can be mailed to: Mary Beckwith, 46 E. Satin St., Jefferson, OH 44047.
Beckwith asks that any donations be made by May 22.
In between teaching at the Vo-ed, Beckwith also coaches the Majorettes at JAHS. She also is an active member of the Jefferson Rotary Club and is working on her master's degree in educational administration at Youngstown State University.
"I just try to move forward, stay positive and keep going," Beckwith said