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Human Interest

Teen Graduates High School After Dramatic, Near-Fatal Battle with the Flu: ‘Faith Got Her Through,’ Says Mom

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The Spell Family; Aniva Zaman

Jenny Spell was rehearsing for her Florida high school’s production of The Sound of Music in 2014 when she started feeling achy and fatigued.

“I thought it was a common cold,” Jenny, now 18, tells PEOPLE. “During show season, there are lots of nasty germs spreading around and I thought I could beat it, but it just got worse and worse.”

The teen doesn’t remember much from the days that followed —only that her body “quit” on her and she found herself unable to move. Her mother, Anne Spell, took her to their primary care office in their hometown —  where doctors said she had flu-like symptoms.

“After three visits, she was eventually admitted to the ICU at a community hospital and I had to carry her in she was so weak,” Anne, a 53-year-old high school teacher in Loxahatchee, tells PEOPLE. “They immediately intubated her and started calling state hospitals to find a place that was equipped to handle necessary life support.”

Doctors and nurses informed Anne that her daughter would likely not make it through the night. They advised her to bring friends and family to the hospital to say their final goodbyes.

“I was preparing for her death,” says Anne. “It was terrifying, I can’t even express the pain I was feeling in that moment.

“My 16-year-old daughter was just running up the stairs earlier that week and now I was being told she wasn’t going to make it.”

Jenny and Ann
The Spell Family

Jenny was flown to Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Florida, where she was diagnosed with influenza by Dr. Gerald Lavandosky. 

She was resuscitated several times at the hospital and put on a heart/lung support system.

“Jenny’s internal organs had become inflamed from the virus,” Lavandosky, managing director at Pediatric Critical Care of South Florida, the pediatric critical care unit at Joe DiMaggio, tells PEOPLE. “She had cardiopulmonary failure due to the influenza infection, which caused her heart to become unable to pump blood efficiently, and her lungs could not absorb oxygen.” 

“She was on the brink of death,” adds her mom. “I’ve never been so scared.”

The Spell Family

Jenny remained in the hospital for 241 days.

“I woke up after being in the hospital for two weeks, not knowing where I was or what had happened,” says Jenny. “My school homecoming passed and it was so confusing.”

She suffered severe nerve damage that now requires her to wear a brace on her right leg. She can hardly use her dominant hand and has memory and processing speed difficulties.

But more importantly, the teen’s kidney failed and she was in desperate need of a new organ — which she would receive from a family friend in Dec. 2016.

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While in the hospital, Jenny took online classes so she could graduate on time.

“She filled every waking moment learning to walk again, studying and praying,” says Anne. “Her recovery was a true miracle, it was so beautiful to see.”

In June 2015, Jenny was released from the hospital. She used an ostomy pouch and gall bladder drain bag at home and got around in a wheelchair due to her depleted muscle mass.

“Jenny’s faith and her belief that there was some greater purpose for her life got her through — from nearly dying to recovering,” says her mom. “She knew she had a purpose on this planet and she fought with all of her might to stay alive.”

The King’s Academy

Lavandosky says that developing deadly complications from the flu is “uncommon,” but not exactly rare.

“Jenny didn’t fit any high-risk groups that you would expect this to happen,” he explains. “We’re kind of scratching our heads trying to figure out why she suffered these complications.”

He adds: “But the kind of perseverance that Jenny has is rare in patients. And I think her drive and sheer determination to survive played a large part in her recovery.” 

Aniva Zaman

In October 2016, Jenny was crowned homecoming queen at her high school, The King’s Academy, and earlier this month she walked the graduation stage.

Inspired by her nurses and doctors at Joe DiMaggio, she will attend University of Florida in the fall — majoring in pre-pharmacy. She wants to be an ICU pharmacist after finishing school.

“It’s a miracle I’m here today,” says Jenny. “So, I’m going to make the most of it!”