By Heide Brandes | Photography by Emily Brashier
Sometimes, the most terrifying experience can lead to miracles.
For one Oklahoma City teenager, an emergency brain surgery to treat massive swelling led to much more — a fiery desire to help others, embrace her culture and serve as witness for faith.
Like many 14-year-old girls, Haylee Chiariello had dreams. While she wanted to become a collegiate-level competitive swimmer, Haylee instead found a new passion in twirling.
“I’ve been twirling since I was 13. I always watched collegiate twirling, and I loved it,” Haylee said. “We found a coach. It was very hard to learn, but I was so excited to have a real baton. It was fun, but difficult. I practice every day because I love it.”
At 13, Haylee hoped her skill and passion for twirling would eventually lead to competitions, awards and scholarships. But a year later, a routine eye exam at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic brought news that was both unexpected and terrifying.
“My optic nerves were swollen, which is a big concern, because it could affect my sight or even cause me to go blind,” she said. “That was pretty scary.”
After numerous referrals to various doctors, an MRI showed that Haylee had excessive fluid on her brain. Called hydrocephalus, her brain’s ventricles were swollen to the size of her brain lobes and the pressure inside her skull was immense. Ventricles circulate fluids around the brain, but Haylee’s third ventricle wasn’t draining.
“I never felt wrong. I was a perfectly healthy girl,” Haylee said. “It was a very scary time. The neurosurgeon said I had to have emergency brain surgery.”
For Haylee’s mother Tanya, the news was something no mother ever wanted to hear.
“She had her head shaved to go through the surgery, which was done using this tiny plastic tool,” Tanya said. “They popped the third ventricle to drain it. But they don’t know what causes it, and it could come back.”
Haylee’s recovery was difficult. In addition to dealing with nausea and pain, she also had difficulty walking, and her mother had to push her around in a wheelchair while her body healed.
“I brought in a beautiful healthy teenage girl, and here I was pushing her around in a wheelchair,” Tanya said. “I tried to be strong as a mom, but it was so surreal.”
As soon as she could walk again, Haylee had a baton in her hand. Because of the surgery, she missed a full year of twirling season and competitions, and her peers had already advanced.
“I had a goal to be a competitive collegiate-level twirler, and in order to do that, you have to win certain contests,” Haylee said. “I did have to set aside the baton for awhile, and I was devastated. But twirling was awesome therapy. Regaining my skills was a struggle, but I worked really hard.”
The brain is a mysterious thing, and as it healed, it also gave Haylee abilities she never knew she had. Her twirling coach was amazed at how quickly she began picking up new skills, and Haylee herself discovered she had a newfound talent at sketching and art.
“I had never taken an art class, and I now have a real passion and talent for sketching,” she said. “I think it was a God thing. I came out of something so scary and horrific to something so beautiful and amazing. God gave me a platform to share my story and what God did for me.”
Now 18, Haylee’s future is even more bright. She twirled as a high school senior this past season with the University of Central Oklahoma Stampede of Sound during football games and is concurrently enrolled at The University of Oklahoma.
As a Native American, Haylee also wants to give back to her culture through Native American studies and as a future lawyer. She wants to run for public office to help other Native American citizens have a voice.
Until then, she’s giving back through her talent.
“I’m teaching a baton twirling clinic for young Native American girls at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic,” she said. “We are collecting batons and sharing this with girls ages 6 to 17.”
In addition, Haylee was recently awarded the OU President’s Scholarship, as well as numerous other academic and leadership scholarships.
“I’m so excited to start my next chapter,” Haylee said.
For Tanya, watching her daughter succeed and inspire so many was worth the agony of worry.
“I think Haylee proves that with God and by working hard, miracles can happen,” she said. “I hope God uses Haylee so others can see that, even when it looks bad, you can do amazing things.”
To donate to Haylee’s GoFundMe account to purchase batons for the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, visit gofundme.com/batons-for-native-americans.
“I never asked for this to happen to me, but I’m grateful for it,” Haylee said. “The brain surgery led me to share what God can do.”