Even when it appeared she might not, Yeatise Gaines crossed the finish line.
The 17-year-old Kalamazoo, MI, senior donned the traditional cap and gown and grasped the signed diploma in her hands on May 14, reaching a milestone she had been racing toward throughout a too-short life.
And then, the next day, she died.
Gaines had been diagnosed with cancer as an 18-month-old toddler, the Kalamazoo Gazette/MLive reports.
The cancer affected her bones and muscles, recurring when she was 2, again when she was 8, and yet again when she was 12. Treatment created lifelong health problems and difficulties, including 10 surgeries to correct chronic back problems, and radiation that damaged her lungs, causing them to eventually fail.
Last week, Gaines began running out of time and it became clear that she wouldn’t survive until the school’s June 4 commencement.
Her school’s principal, Valerie Boggan, made special arrangements with the hospital where Gaines was being treated, and she graduated from high school, surrounded by about 20 family members and close friends.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Boggan told the Kalamazoo Gazette. "For her family, it wasn't sad. They were celebrating.”
Gaines is described by those who knew her as beautiful, talented, smart and inspirational, despite a lifetime of health problems and never ceasing pain.
Santasha Gaines said her daughter was “always happy, no matter what happened,” and determined to make the most of however short a life she might have.
Education was a No. 1 priority and the 17-year-old who wrote poetry every day “always went above and beyond,” said her sophomore English teacher, Vanessa Brower.
When Gaines’ health deteriorated to the point she couldn’t attend school, tutor Rudy Sledge began teaching her at home. Sledge admits he may have learned more than his student did.
Her commitment to academics and a drive to do well were admirable, Sledge said, but it was her positive attitude that left the most powerful impression on him. Spending time with her was “a bright part of my day,” he said."What she taught me was that you run the race that is set before you, and you do it with grace and perseverance and a good attitude,” Sledge told the newspaper. “That's what she did, and that's what I learned from her.”