Graduates to Watch

Falmouth High School grad Haley Stark plans to study government, economics and Spanish at Harvard University. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Haley Stark survived a rare spinal stroke at age 12 that nearly took her life and set the formerly “super athletic kid” on a very different path.

Stark’s future plans are fueled by her success in changing a humiliating elevator policy at Falmouth High School and her resilience in coping with bullying by some of her classmates.

The stroke claimed the use of her right hand and she walks with a barely noticeable limp. Still, whenever things get tough, Stark thinks of others who face much greater struggles, including children who lay dying beside her in a Boston hospital six years ago.

“I’ve seen people with much more significant disabilities than me, so I figure if they can do it, I can do it,” she said. “I’m unapologetic and I’m comfortable with myself.”

Stark was an all-round athlete who played softball, soccer and basketball and was already challenging state records in running. Symptoms of the stroke started with intense shoulder pain after a routine track practice. Within a few minutes she was completely paralyzed from the neck down.

She spent two months in hospitals and rehab facilities in Maine and Massachusetts. She underwent numerous tests and battled bouts of pneumonia, sepsis and septic shock.

Defying doctors’ expectations, she reclaimed the ability to breathe, eat and talk without assistance. She returned to school using a walker, which she no longer needs, and she learned to write with her left hand.

The community overall was supportive and accommodating, she said, especially school administrators and teachers. But some students mimicked her limp and made fun of the brace she wore on her right hand, so she stopped wearing it.

During her sophomore year, when some staff members questioned her occasional use of the school’s elevator, she wrote an editorial for the student newspaper that stopped the embarrassing practice.

During her junior year, Stark published a memoir of her experiences, “Tying the Ribbon,” which was culled from journal entries written throughout her recovery and is available via Amazon Kindle and Audible.

A top student, she participated in many school activities, including debate and theater, and she volunteered widely, teaching students in Guatemala through the charity Safe Passage. She often speaks publicly, testifying for legislation that would require vaccination in public schools. She also has worked part time as a camp counselor and waitress.

Stark, 18, plans to study government, economics and Spanish at Harvard University, angling for a career promoting the rights of people with disabilities.

“I’m interested in figuring out the best strategies to bring about change, and in this country, the best way to do that is through government action,” she said.

“I also realize that money makes the world go round, so I think I should have a background in economics,” she continued. “And I want to continue my education in Spanish because I want to be able to communicate with all U.S. citizens in the future.”

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