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Positively inspiring

Danielle Connolly caps off high school career as valedictorian

As Danielle Connolly prepared to hit the stage for her valedictorian speech at Cardinal Spellman High School’s graduation on May 23, she was very nervous. She wasn’t used to speaking formally in front of such a large group. But with poise and grace and her ever-present positive attitude, Danielle delivered beautiful, inspiring remarks.

“I was very nervous when I first came to Spellman because I have mitochondrial disease so I was very different from everyone,” Danielle said halfway through her speech. “However, Spellman couldn't have been better to me. When looking at other schools and even places to work, I was welcomed until they found out I had a disability. Even though I don’t need much help, certain places just didn’t want to do anything extra. Spellman, however, said they'd do everything and anything they could.”

Danielle was 5 years old when she was officially diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, Complex IV. But her mom, Denise, knew since Danielle was about 4 months old that something wasn’t right. Danielle had low tone, she couldn’t hold her head up, she looked floppy. It took two muscle biopsies and one second opinion to get the diagnosis. 

Danielle knew since a young age that something was wrong with her. Her body tired so easily. She couldn’t walk long distances. She felt weak. She didn’t have the strength to do a lot of things. But that never deterred her … even when other kids were hanging out at the mall all day and Danielle had only enough energy to go to a couple of stores. Not all the kids wanted to wait up for her, Denise said. But Danielle found out who her real friends were -- they were the ones who wanted to do what she could do.

As a sophomore, Danielle had a g-tube put in place. While she is able to eat solid food, the g-tube provides extra calories because she has trouble gaining weight.

“… When I was out of school for two months my sophomore year for surgery, I felt so much support,” she said in her valedictorian speech. “I knew people noticed I wasn't there and that they were praying for me. Spellman prayer is such a powerful force, so knowing that it'll always be there if you need it is truly a blessing.”

When she started high school, everyone was so great. “At first they treated me especially nice, but as time went on, they treated me like everyone else,” she said, noting that’s all she ever wanted.

She was hesitant about going to her Junior Prom because of her limitations and all the what-ifs, but she ended up having a great time. “I went to all my dances senior year and ended up making Homecoming Court and Prom Court.” After prom this year, she said to her friend and date TJ, “The fact that I could barely walk when the night was over just meant that it was clearly a very fun night!”

Danielle is like any other kid … she just doesn’t have their energy. Danielle is unlike many kids … she’s a goal-setter and is always working toward them.

“My idea of staying forever young is making new goals when others fail and enjoying every moment we have,” she told her classmates as she challenged them to remain “Forever Young,” like the Rod Stewart song. “Many people with mitochondrial disease have severe developmental delays and don’t even live to this age, so I know just how fortunate I am to be standing here today. I know all of you have great gifts, so I urge you not to waste them.”

The Abington, MA native doesn’t give herself a set number of goals. “I take it day by day. I always have something in mind,” she said. One goal she always achieves is being positive. “If you feel bad for yourself, it doesn’t do any good.”

Her advice? “Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do. Take full advantage of what you have. Live as normally as possible and in a way that creates happy memories. Focus on the positive and know that good things will happen.”

And that’s what Danielle does … even though she struggles to climb stairs and she can’t walk very far. Her body may tire out, but her mind never does. As a senior, her classload included Advance Placement biology, AP physiology, AP calculus, and AP English. She’s a member of the National Honor Society and Cardinal Spellman’s Big Brother Big Sister mentoring program. And next year, she’s attending Northeastern University to study Pharmacy and hopes to one day work in a hospital setting as a pediatric pharmacist – preferably at Children’s Hospital Boston – and do research. She also hopes to be an advocate for and work with mitochondrial disease patients.

While navigating a large campus will pose a challenge, Danielle knows she will figure it all out. She always does, by setting goals, smiling, and maintaining her positive attitude.

In the meantime, you can find her volunteering in a waiting room at Children’s Hospital entertaining kids, an audience she never feels nervous around.

To support programs for teens, children, adults, and families living with Mito, please donate to MitoAction!