After surviving a massive brain aneurism, two nearly-fatal strokes, a medically-induced coma, mobility loss, and vision loss, McKenzie Hanlon is ready to take on the world with her guide dog CJ

By Kelli Bender
November 25, 2020 05:42 PM
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Credit: Southeastern Guide Dogs

McKenzie Hanlon has endured more in her 22 years than most see in a lifetime.

At the age of 14, Hanlon started to be plagued by sporadic but debilitating migraine headaches. After numerous doctor visits and various treatments, Hanlon learned at 17 that she had a massive brain aneurism that required immediate surgery.

During the operation to relieve the pressure on Hanlon's skull from the aneurism, the teen had two nearly-fatal strokes that led to Hanlon being placed in a medically induced coma. Hanlon awoke from the coma, after several close calls and another operation, to find that she was paralyzed on her right side and had suffered vision loss.

Instead of letting this trauma slow her down, Hanlon worked through her medical setbacks and maintained a 3.5 GPA at her high school. Today, she is 22 and has regained her most of her mobility due to her dedication to getting better and stronger. Hanlon's vision did not return. She retains some vision in her right eye, but none in her left. Additionally, she has some difficulty speaking due to aphasia.

Credit: Southeastern Guide Dogs

While some may see these differences as obstacles to the life they envisioned, Hanlon has pressed on with her dreams and is preparing to enroll in college classes.

Newly by her side for the academic adventure is CJ, a yellow Lab that serves as Hanlon's guide dog and best furry friend. Trained and placed free of charge by the nonprofit Southeastern Guide Dogs, CJ helps Hanlon navigate the world while maintaining her independence. The companionship and assistance the pup provides are "life-changing," according to Hanlon, who no longer has to worry about tripping, falling, or bumping into objects as she did when she was using a cane to get around.

"I walked with her and I could feel her stop at the curb, and it turned out to have an indent.  CJ knew that was a 'nope' for me," Hanlon tells PEOPLE of the moment she knew CJ was the ideal guide dog after testing a dozen others. "She was obviously very patient and aware."

After that comforting experience, Hanlon knew CJ was her perfect match and the dedicated dog joined her family in September.

Credit: Southeastern Guide Dogs

"Now, I can go walk just me and CJ with no slip-ups," Hanlon says of one of the many little ways CJ has made her life better, adding that the dog had improved her overall mobility too.

After a few months with CJ, Hanlon has figured out her goals for the future.

"I want to work in social work, but my dream job would be to work at Southeastern Guide Dogs to help others who have gone through a situation like my mine," she adds. Hanlon also hopes that her story will push others to take migraines seriously and encourage them to get an MRI if they are concerned about head pain.