COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) - Liz Harrison missed so much school that she eventually dropped out and got her GED instead of trying to catch up.
That would satisfy a lot of people, but not Harrison. She took Pikes Peak Community College classes, became a certified nursing assistant and got a job at an assisted-care facility.
She enjoyed the work, but she wasn't ready to abandon lifelong dreams.
"I never really wanted to give up and stop trying," she said. "I had huge dreams. I wanted to change the world."
Tough to do when you can barely get out of bed, or when pain keeps you from walking around the block. Tougher still when doctors aren't sure what's wrong and sometimes suggest you're faking illness to get out of school.
Hers is a long story, full of small victories and big setbacks. But here in a nutshell is what happened:In February 2007 she was bedridden and on "all sorts of crazy medicines"; in February 2008 she passed the General Educational Development test; and in February 2009 she won a Boettcher Scholarship to attend Colorado State University.
In the middle of all that, Harrison finally received a medical diagnosis - juvenile fibromyalgia - and learned pain-management techniques that allowed her to take control of her life again.
Now she's back on track with her peers from Rampart High School's Class of 2009. But her journey was far different - and more difficult - than the road for most.
Harrison was "super normal" during her first couple of years at Mountain Ridge Middle School. She earned good grades, ran track, volunteered at Memorial Hospital, and loved riding and showing her horse, Mars. She had a comfortable life with her parents, both 1984 Air Force Academy graduates, and younger brother. Her mom, Gay, was in the Air Force Reserves, and her dad, Scott, worked for Academy School District 20.
"Then all of a sudden, when I was 13, I got sick," she said.
She missed a lot of school in eighth grade, but things got better the next year. She'd later learn that symptoms with fibromyalgia, a disorder marked by chronic pain, can come and go. But at that time she was being treated for Lyme disease because her symptoms fit, and the ongoing antibiotic treatments seemed to help. Sometimes she'd have to go home midway through a day, sometimes she'd be out for a week. There were no tutors for students in advanced classes, so she kept up with school work at home as best she could, until midway through 10th grade.
From January to April 2007 she often was bedridden, sometimes unable to even speak or read, her mother said. Because she was in the Reserves, Gay Harrison was able to care for her daughter, and became her advocate.
"Liz was miserable, but she did not make us miserable," her mom said.
Liz Harrison, though, thinks that was a tough period for her family. "To be honest, though, I don't remember much because I was so sick."
With her mom by her side, Liz Harrison left in April 2007 for about a month at the Chicago clinic, where, as one of the first adolescents treated there, she learned to manage her pain. Although doctors were sticking to the Lyme disease diagnosis, personnel at the clinic suggested she might have fibromyalgia. A few months later, a Colorado Springs doctor agreed that was the right diagnosis.
Gay Harrison said sightseeing in Chicago was part of the treatment, because therapists want their patients to get their lives back. The two particularly enjoyed visits to the art galleries.
"They would give us the wrong directions to a bus stop just so we'd walk a block farther," Gay Harrison said. "She didn't think she could do it, but she did.
"The idea was, you need to own your illness and learn to work with it."
Liz Harrison came home from the clinic with renewed hope that she could return to school. And the first semester of her junior year went great - until December.
She has a weakened immune system, and when a friend got bronchitis, she caught it, too.
Then it turned into pneumonia.
Too sick to return at the beginning of the second semester, Harrison made the tough decision to drop out of school and get her GED, taking the test as soon as she turned 17 and easily passing.
"Getting up every day and going to school for eight hours just was not working for my body," she said.
Because she'd volunteered for years at Memorial, she was able to work out a two-day-a-week internship, and also was accepted for a summer program in France, where she took advanced French languages classes at the University of Paris-Sorbonne.
But as the fall of what should have been her senior year arrived, there was a lingering desire that Harrison simply would not relinquish.
She took classes at Pikes Peak Community College and became a certified nursing assistant. She got a part-time job at an assisted living center and enjoys helping elderly residents maintain their independence.
"It was exciting for me to be able to work after not being able to get out of bed and make my own food," she said.
The pain still was there. Still is there. May always be there.
"I haven't had a day when I wasn't in pain since I was 13, so that's five years," she said.
"But when you have chronic pain, you get used to a whole different standard."
She wouldn't let the pain stifle her dreams. Among them was the longtime desire to win one of the 40 Boettcher Scholarships awarded each year to Colorado high school seniors.
She was the right age. She had good test scores. But she wasn't in high school and wouldn't be getting a high school diploma.
Undeterred, she called the foundation. Molly Smith listened to her story and said, "We'll get back to you."
Katy Craig, director of the foundation's scholarship program, said the foundation considers students with special circumstances on a case-by-case basis, especially those who've faced medical issues.
"Liz had battled for her first couple of years in high school, still keeping her grade-point average up, staying involved and doing community service," Craig said. "That type of tenacity, that personal resilience is what we look for."
So after a few phone calls to verify her circumstances, Harrison was invited to apply.
"It's a huge application," Harrison said. "It's very intense."
She spent hours on it and got some help from her former Rampart counselor. After being named one of 200 semifinalists, she had to gather letters of recommendations and wait again.
"I wanted to feel like I could compete," she said.
She was named a finalist and invited for a private tour at CSU, one of a few schools she was interested in. Then came the "scariest part" of the process, a 15-minute interview at the foundation.
It was only a few days later - on Valentine's Day 2009 - that Harrison learned she'd earned her heart's desire, a Boettcher Scholarship that would ensure full tuition at the Colorado college of her choice for four years.
She chose CSU, where she plans to major in psychology and pre-occupational therapy.
She wants to become an occupational therapist, and work with children and adolescents with chronic illnesses.
There's a serious need, she said, for doctors and other medical professionals who specialize in adolescent medicine, who will really listen to teens and not simply ask whether they're doing drugs or trying to get out of school.
She should know.
Harrison, 18, realizes she could have a relapse and become very ill - or the disorder could go away. But she's confident she's learned enough about it and herself to make it through college.
"I think I'm strong enough now," she said. "Because of the scholarship I won't have to work, so I can just focus on school and not overdo things."
She's learning yoga and has other pain-management techniques. She knows she needs a good night's sleep every night, so she'll be living in the honors dorm, where studying and quiet time are priorities.
Her hard life lessons, too, will come in handy.
"You have to make things work for you," she said. "It's hard not to do things the traditional way, but you can find your own path."