CYPRESS, Tex. — Nine months after synthetic marijuana destroyed a large portion of her brain, Emily Bauer did something her parents feared they’d never see: She went back to high school.
Excited, nervous and terrified, the sophomore rolled through the hallways of Cy-Fair High School in Cypress, Texas, last week. Despite the familiar surroundings, Emily is living in a new world.
She can’t read or write. She is relearning basic addition and subtraction. A rotating cast of aides help Emily get through her school day. They wheel her from class to class, assist her in the restroom, help her eat, read class material to her and take notes for her, as she is partially blind. She attends school for half the day and goes to therapy in the afternoon.
And the 17-year-old has a message for anyone who wants to try fake weed.
“The high is great, but in the long run, it isn’t good,” she said, describing her experience smoking synthetic weed. “It’s no fun to be stuck in a wheelchair, to have to go to therapy or (possibly) die.”
But she prefers to focus on the stuff she can do, like getting a perfect score on her first world history quiz. For the fiery-haired student, simply being back at school is epic.
Less than a year ago, in December 2012, Emily was on life support after several strokes left her paralyzed, blind and largely unaware of her surroundings. Her family has no doubt the drug that landed her in the hospital was synthetic marijuana. Her parents first believed she had only tried it a couple times. But they recently learned the extent of her use — Emily told them she smoked it daily for the two weeks before she went to the hospital.
Best known by the street names “Spice” or “K2,” fake weed is an herbal mixture sprayed with chemicals intended to create a high similar to smoking marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Advertised as a “legal” alternative to weed, it’s often sold as incense or potpourri and in most states, it’s anything but legal.
Emily’s stepfather, Tommy Bryant, told CNN last year that doctors diagnosed his daughter with vasculitis, which is an inflammation of the blood vessels. The vessels going into Emily’s brain were constricting, limiting blood and oxygen flow.
Emily is far from alone in her scary experience. Last week, three people in Colorado may have died after smoking the drug, according to state health officials. The Colorado Department of Public Health launched an investigation after 75 people were hospitalized in late August after using the substance.
CNN first wrote about Emily in February, after learning about her story through iReport. A lot of people were quick to say then that marijuana should be legalized so drugs like these aren’t on the market. Others pointed out after the Colorado news that marijuana is legal in that state. Emily’s stepfather, who has been in her life since she was born, is not interested in the debate.
“My focus is trying to get rid of this one bad product and not trying to substitute with anything else,” said Bryant.
Bryant and his family started an organization called Synthetic Awareness For Emily to educate families, as well as teachers and doctors, about the dangers and warning signs of synthetic marijuana use. He said his goal isn’t to scare students — he just wants them to be aware that this stuff is out there.
“I’m trying to get the kids to realize that one bad decision could lead to a lifetime of pain,” Bryant said. “Not just for them, but for their loved ones.”
It’s been a slow recovery. After months in the hospital, Emily’s family had to operate a lift in their home to move Emily from the bed or from the chair. Now Emily can stand up and shift herself, so it’s easier for her parents to transfer her on their own, her mother Tonya Bauer said.
She can’t walk, but she’s been taking physical steps at therapy sessions. Special equipment supports her body so she can focus on moving her feet.
Emily has difficulty lifting the front of her foot, also known as “foot drop.” Her feet point straight down when she stands up, which puts her knees and hips out of alignment. The family has opted for a tendon-lengthening surgery in the near future. Her mother hopes the surgery will mean Emily will be able to walk again one day.
As Emily recovers, she and her family try to find joy in doing small things. They go out to movies and ice cream here and there, and they even took Emily to a Drake concert a few weeks ago.
Seeing Emily sing along and be a teenager again, along with watching the handicap bus whisk her off to school last week, are signs that Emily is feeling more like herself, said her parents. And here’s more evidence: During her telephone interview with CNN, she sounded just like a typical 17-year-old girl
“Our goal is to get Emily independent again so she can live on her own one day,” said her mother. “Having her go back to school has really made us see that this is possible.”
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