Story by Darrenn Cooper / Record Sports Department
EMERSON — Cartwheel? Cartwheel? Jessica Livingstone is practically begging you to ask her to do a cartwheel. Right now. Right here in the living room. She can do it.
Livingstone, 19, can do anything now. Well, except meet Bon Jovi, which she still really wants to do, like, right now. They came so close once and it didn’t happen. It’s one thing on her checklist that she hasn’t scratched off yet.
But some of the other things on that list? Well, let’s check.
Pet a baby lion? She did it.
Kiss a giraffe? Done.
Sass doctors? Go to prom? Shoot a superhero commercial? Inspire a community? Fight back from an extraordinarily rare brain disorder? And most importantly, run out on to the football field as an Emerson High School cheerleader her senior year?
“I am perfectly healthy now and I am so happy to still be here,” said Livingstone, who will receive a Charlie McGill Scholarship Award from the NorthJersey.com staff at Thursday night’s Sports Awards. “Yeah, I’m a cheerleader and yeah, I have my varsity jacket which I thought I would never get and I have the necklace they gave me from cheering and all the clothes, and just to be able to say yes, I was a varsity cheerleader my senior year … it’s amazing.”
It has certainly been an incredible journey for Livingstone. You’ve probably never heard of the disease she has. It’s called Moyamoya, and in layman’s terms it means that her blood wasn’t properly circulating around her brain.
Moyamoya was definitely not a thought of Livingstone’s as she entered Emerson High School. She wanted to make friends, get involved and get good grades. And while she had been a gymnast at ENA for a few years, she was determined to be a cheerleader in high school.
Somehow though, she missed her chance to register, so she focused on her studies and began to make friends.
As a sophomore, she was the first one to sign up. She wanted to cheer and she wanted to fly as one of those girls who is hoisted skyward on Friday nights at football games in America. In cheerleader terms, they are called the flyers.
“I loved it,” Livingstone said. “They had me do spin-ups and it was like a blur. Oh, wow, everything is spinning. Oh wait, now I can see straight. I loved flying.”
Getting the exact calendar of when Livingstone’s world truly spun out of control is a little difficult. She had been experiencing some sporadic numbness on her left side dating back to as early as fifth grade. Then, it had been chalked up to anxiety and normal puberty.
Later there was serious trouble with her arm. She couldn’t open a car door. She couldn’t see straight. She laughs about going to school and trying to take a Spanish test even though she couldn’t walk down the hallway without help.
Doctors thought it might be migraine aura (that’s when you see spots). She was sent home with some medication. There was the thought it might have been a concussion, maybe from a cheerleading fall.
Things got worse. She started sleeping wearing sunglasses. Everything hurt.
“It started to feel like someone was stabbing me in the head,” Livingstone said. “It was really awful. I was screaming in pain and I was taken to the emergency room.”
Livingstone had suffered a stroke, a severe one. They guess she had at least three strokes total. She still favors her left side a small bit. (But remember, cartwheels are a snap).
Doctors were puzzled. Moyamoya doesn’t show up on a cat scan, it has to be done through an MRI. But there it was.
“They told me that the MRI showed that most of the brain on my right side was really damaged,” Livingstone said. “They said we have to lay down healthy vessels on top of the damaged one and the hope is they’ll heal over and form better vessels.”
“They call it a brain by-pass,” Livingstone’s father, Daniel, said. “They take one artery from each side and eventually it spreads like tree branches to get blood flow back to the brain.”
She underwent three surgeries. The last one was last July. You can see her scars, but only if you look close.
Livingstone did her best to maintain a positive attitude. She got to go on a Make-A-Wish trip to a private animal preserve (where she hugged the lion and kissed the giraffe). She walked before her doctors thought she could and made up her school work. Honor roll? Of course.
“I like proving people wrong when they tell me I can’t do something,” Livingstone grinned.
She went back to Emerson in September with one goal and approached Emerson cheerleading coach Kerry Vogel.
“I said all I want to do is run out on the field in the uniform. I don’t have to be part of the cheer team. I just want to be part of the team one more time. She said, ‘you can be on the team. If you can’t fly, no problem. If you can’t front spot, no problem.’”
Vogel couldn’t possibly say no.
“She had a smile on her face every single time I saw her,” Vogel said. “She said she wanted to be out there. We ordered her gear that day. It was hard for her to do some of the skills, but it didn’t stop her. She would go home and practice five cheers and come back and show me her list that she had worked on.”
By the end of the football season, Livingstone was doing all the cheers. She’d stand next to Vogel during the stunts, but she relearned the dances. She came out for the senior pep rally just like her classmates.
“All I wanted to do was run out and at the end of the season I did the entire dance routine that’s what I wanted to do,” Livingstone said. “I wanted to dance and I wanted to run out in my uniform – which I kept.”
Soon Livingstone will graduate. The plan is to attend Bergen Community College then transfer. She still really wants to meet Bon Jovi. (Please). The next goal is to study animals and work to save endangered species.
She can certainly give them perspective on fighting back from long odds – and do cartwheels.