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Bigfork High School senior perseveres through turbulent journey

by JEREMY WEBER
Daily Inter Lake | June 1, 2023 12:00 AM

Saying Bigfork High School senior Emma Dawson has dealt with a lot of heartache during her high school years would be a colossal understatement.

Born with a hole between her right and left ventricle and a second hole in her aortic valve, Dawson battled her way through open-heart surgery and the subsequent recovery as a freshman, along with the rigors of Covid-19 pandemic, all without the benefit of a strong mother figure in her life.

Life has never been normal for Dawson. As a young child, she spent much of her time in and out of various doctor’s offices while having her heart condition constantly monitored.

As she grew older, the hopes of the defects healing on their own did not materialize, but her doctors agreed to let her be more active and join youth sports activities, but results were mixed at best.

“I played soccer and basketball just like every other kid, I just ran out of breath way easier than anyone else did. I would turn red because the murmur in my heart kept it from pumping as much blood as it should.”

When her mother, who has battled various addictions throughout her life, left the family while Dawson was in seventh grade, Dawson had the additional pressure of helping raise her two younger siblings, Levi and Canyon.

If that pressure was not enough, continued complications with her heart condition led doctors to recommend open-heart surgery just as she was heading into her freshman year in high school.

Dawson, along with her father, Lance Dawson, made the trip to Seattle Children’s Hospital to discuss her options.

“I was terrified. I was really scared. I don’t remember what the odds were they gave me going into the surgery, but I remember that I started bawling my eyes out when they told me. My dad was crying right next to me and it was a very emotional time,” Dawson said. “My dad took me around town and showed me a lot of the sights before the surgery and we had a lot of fun. He really helped turn what could have been a terrifying memory into a good one.”

Dawson made it through the surgery with flying colors, but the recovery process got off to a rough start.

“Waking up from the surgery was not great. My boyfriend at the time was there with me and I literally woke up to him saying ‘Oh good, you survived. I’m breaking up with you.’ I got broken up right as I came out of heart surgery. Can you believe that,” she asked incredulously. “My heart had just been fixed and it got broken again right away. It’s kind of a funny story looking back on it now, but it sure wasn’t funny in the moment.”

Undeterred, Dawson’s recovery progressed so quickly that she was released from the hospital after just five days (the average stay after a surgery of that type is two weeks) and spent the next couple of weeks with family in Seattle.

While the recovery process was going well, Dawson ended up missing the beginning quarter of her freshman year, leaving her scrambling to catch up.

Dawson took solace in two of her favorite activities, theater and band which had been her escape from her troubles since middle school.

“I never went back to athletics after the surgery. I learned during my recovery that theater and music are really my things. I love theater and music and everything about them, and I wasn’t much of an athlete anyway,” she said. “When I am on the stage, I am not myself. I am portraying a character. I have a lot of social anxiety and I am very introverted. When I am playing a character, I am not Emma Dawson, I am whatever character I am portraying. Theater gives me a wave of confidence that has really helped me learn who I am. Theater is a great environment that I just love to be in.”

WITH THE threat of what would become the Covid-19 pandemic looming on the horizon, unfortunately, even those escapes would soon be lost.

With her immune system compromised, Dawson left school and entered isolation two weeks before the shutdown order came, but was able to convince her father to allow her to continue prepping for the Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theatre’s production of “Lady Pirates of Captain Bree.” She had landed her first-ever lead role, portraying Shawna, the boy-crazy pirate.

Dawson took to the stage for the show’s opening night on March 13, 2020, but the show was canceled the following day.

Stuck at home with schoolwork piling up, Dawson says depression began to set in.

By the time she transferred schools and began her sophomore year at Flathead High School, Dawson says she was at the end of her rope.

“I made some not-so-smart decisions, including leaving my father’s house to be with my mother. I thought my mom was a good thing, but really she was just fueling all of my bad decisions and letting me make mistakes. She wasn’t being a parent, she was trying to be my friend.”

After some soul searching and a long talk with her father, Dawson transferred back to Bigfork and began turning her life around.

“I was coming in before school and staying late after school just so I could get caught up to where I should have been,” she said.

Back in band and theater, Dawson used her escapes to help her through the rough times as she put in the hard work to make up for lost time and truly found herself.

Bigfork High School band teacher Randi Tunnell said in the last two years Dawson has found her voice.

“I think she found that music can be a great form of therapy and she has utilized that when she has needed to,” Tunnell said. “Band has been a safe environment for her with a good group of kids with high expectations. You can’t hide when you are in band. People rely on you in band and I think that has been very positive for her. I am very proud of her.”

“I’m proud that she has been able to find her way through everything she had to deal with and she has come out stronger and smarter. She was able to find her strengths and limitations and learn who she is. She learned that there are things she can’t control and not everything is her fault.”

NOW THAT the hard work of catching up is behind her, Dawson has enjoyed her senior year, including acting in “Annie” at the Playhouse and earning a superior rating in choir at both the district and state levels.

“My senior year has been amazing. I’m glad I put in the work in my sophomore and junior years to get to where I am now so that I will be able to graduate,” she said.

With only a few days of high school remaining, Dawson says she is looking forward to beginning a new chapter of her life at Flathead Valley Community College in the fall, where she plans to study musical theater before continuing her education at Belmont University in Tennessee.

Dawson has worked hard to overcome a lot during her four years in high school, a feat she said she would never have been able to accomplish without the help and support of her father.

“My dad has been my rock and I love him so much. He has been there for me and has been a strong parental figure in my life and I will be forever grateful for everything he does,” she said. “Not having a mother figure in my life has been very difficult for me. Not having a stable female figure in my life has been hard. Having to be that figure for myself and my little sister has been even harder. It’s a lot of pressure, but I have worked my way through it. I hope that I have given my sister a good person to look up to. I want to be the role model for her that my mom wasn’t for me.”

Bigfork High School’s commencement ceremony for the Class of 2023 is on Saturday, June 3. The ceremony starts at 11 a.m. in the high school gym with 73 students set to graduate. The school is located at 600 Commerce St., Bigfork.