Monique Kazamek began her high school career at Mira Costa High School in 2015 much like many other students—with a full course load and ambitious ideas about her future.
“I was thinking about one of those jobs where I travel a lot and I’m working a lot,” the Manhattan Beach native explained, noting she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her business-savvy parents.
That was until life threw her an unexpected twist: Lyme Disease.
The complex illness—which is typically caused by a bite from an infected blacklegged tick—can be effectively treated with antibiotics if caught quickly, according to Dr. Marcelo Campos in a June 2018 Harvard Health Blog.
But, doctors also notice some patients who have symptoms that persist for months or even years, even after treatment.
“We cannot ignore that people’s lives change after the diagnosis of Lyme disease. Their suffering is real,” Campos wrote.
Unfortunately, Kazamek knows all too well how real that suffering can be.
“It’s something that has affected every aspect of my life,” she said.
In the beginning of her sophomore year, Kazamek began experiencing digestive issues and debilitating exhaustion.
“I would go play nine holes for practice,” remembered Kazamek, who was on the school’s golf team at the time. “I would come home at 5 p.m., go straight to sleep and then it would be super difficult for me to wake up the next morning.”
Her diminished energy levels led Kazamek to quit her extracurriculars. She also could no longer make it to all of her classes and began missing a lot of school.
“When I was absent, I would try to make up as much as I could,” Kazamek said, noting she had to coordinate with teachers to get missed work and go into the office to take tests. “It was this pattern of me trying to just catch up.”
Meanwhile, Kazamek constantly felt drained and as though she was experiencing the flu.
But her inconclusive medical tests and nondescript symptoms had doctors stumped.
“It took pretty much a year of going to tons of specialists. Most said they didn’t know how to fix what I was struggling with,” Kazamek said.
As she entered her junior year, one specialist finally confirmed Kazamek had Lyme Disease.
A relatively rare and elusive condition to diagnose, there were only 1,420 confirmed and 678 probable cases of Lyme Disease reported in the United States among teenagers aged 15 to 19 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Through treatment, Kazamek was able to return to school, taking four classes on campus and two at home throughout her junior year.
But, she still struggled adjusting her goals as a student to match her physical needs.
“I think the biggest mistake I made in my junior year was putting school before my health,” she said. “It took until this year to actually realize that it’s more of a balance.”
Now finishing her senior year at Mira Costa with two classes at home and two at school, Kazamek has found success and balance.
“I realize that giving it time and creating a more balanced lifestyle…I think that’s really been the biggest thing in me being able to get better. I am still graduating like everyone else and ended up with a great GPA,” said the 18-year-old who will be graduating summa cum laude.
She doesn’t feel as though her illness sets her apart from her peers so much as gives her a deeper empathy towards understanding others’ feelings.
“Everybody has been through something in high school—every single person graduating has had to overcome some sort of obstacle—so I feel like I can connect better with people on that level.”
While Kazamek does lament missing out on some rites of passages such as prom and just eating lunch with friends on campus, she said her illness has taught her about life - and herself.
“When I was sick, I read and wrote a lot. I got to figure out what I really like,” she explained. “It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I’m feeling better but it’s a process. I’m still working to create something that works for me.”
Despite being accepted into several universities, Kazamek has decided to attend a local community college for now. Rather than a hectic business career, she wants to follow her passions and become an English professor—a job she said better suits her.
“That’s the biggest thing I learned: people need to focus more on what works for them personally rather than trying to fit into this mold of perfection. That helped me a lot.”