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Cary teen graduating on time despite injuries suffered in car crash

CARY, N.C. (WNCN) - Finishing high school on time comes as a pleasant surprise for an Athens Drive Magnet High School senior, following three years of overcoming adversity.

Nicole Walko will graduate Tuesday, three years after her life changed in a car crash. She suffered a traumatic brain injury when her head smashed against a windshield.

"Every day after that, I've had really bad headaches and migraines," Walko said.

"Then a year and a half after the accident, I got hit in the head with a basketball in the same spot, so I had another concussion. And then right after that, I started experiencing seizures almost daily at school."

She had to start studying away from school through the Homebound program offered by the Wake County Public School System. Online learning was not particularly feasible as the flickering of computer screens caused her more pain.

The Walko family praised Wake County schools, and particularly Athens Drive principal Stephen Mares and counselor Cheryl Hegarty, for their support in making sure Walko could succeed. 

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"I didn't think I'd graduate on time for a while, so it feels really good to be done and on track with all my friends," she said. "I feel very loved there and very welcomed."

Bonnie Walko said she had concerns about her daughter's ability to graduate.

There were days when Nicole Walko felt like she couldn't get up, and many times when the teen simply did not feel like she could do anything.

Now she is preparing for the second of two graduation parties this Spring. Older sister Danielle Walko completed her degree at East Carolina University, and Nicole Walko will attend UNC-Chapel Hill later this year.

"A lot of tears, a lot of heartache, but now I see what she's gone through and how she's handled herself, and what she's done with it school wise. She's done well, even though she had to do a lot of it on Homebound, so I'm just really proud of her," Bonnie Walko said.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel. She still has her struggles, she still has the daily headaches, but she's able to do it and she's able to go on. My biggest advice is just don't ever give up and just keep going," Walko's mother said.

Nicole Walko said she hopes other students facing adversity, especially those recovering from physical injuries, will stay motivated to complete their studies.

"It's definitely not easy and it's not fun, but I just hope kids my age know it's not something you should give up on either," she said.

"The pain is sometimes unbearable, and you don't think you can get up and you don't think you can go, but I just hope they know that they can push through and that this isn't something that's going to define them for the rest of their life," she added.

Coloring books were therapeutic during her recovery. The Athens Drive staff slowly phased her into modified coursework and classes on campus, so that she could still see her friends and some of her teachers.

Walko's goal it to become a physical therapist after she completes her degree. She wants to work with concussion victims in their recoveries from injuries.

She will have to continue to visit doctors and discuss her medical issues with her professors, but she wants her studies to be as normal as possible.

"I think for me it's mainly just knowing that I can do it. I don't need all of these modifications. I'm not going to try to use them, because I want to know that I can do it myself and that I'm strong enough to. Hopefully just a lot of studying and taking extra time in my classes, but I think I'll be able to do it," she said.

The graduation ceremony for Athens Drive Magnet High School will be Tuesday at the Raleigh Convention Center.

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