Kelly Walski, 17, has always been a healthy teen.
She stays active and she loves playing golf and volleyball with her friends at Kenowa Hills High School.
But at one practice about two years ago, she found herself on the sidelines, hunched over in pain.
It marked the start of unexplainable bouts of pain, as well as occasional nausea and vomiting. And it seemed to come on at the most inopportune times—during practice, or even in the middle of a game.
When she tried to soldier through, she’d end up sitting on the bench.
At times, the pain would grow so severe she’d have to return home to rest.
With her senior year just around the corner—and a supportive group of family, friends and a boyfriend at her side—Kelly and her parents knew she needed to seek help.
“I was bent over in pain,” she said. “It was awful. The only thing that helped was lying down in bed.”
She underwent an MRI and CT scan. Doctors tested her for kidney stones, but found nothing out of the ordinary. They also referred her to a gastroenterology specialist for additional tests.
Answers proved elusive.
“I almost gave up,” Kelly said.
The family returned home, remaining optimistic a cause would be identified with time.
‘She changed my life’
Kelly received a referral to the Pediatric Chronic Pain Clinic at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, where she met with an interdisciplinary team of providers.
This included Brittany Barber Garcia, PhD, chief of pediatric psychology and a pediatric pain psychologist with pediatric behavioral health and pain and palliative medicine at the children’s hospital.
As Kelly remembers it: “I met Dr. Barber Garcia a little over a year ago and she changed my life. She told me she knew what was wrong.”
Dr. Barber Garcia said her team has seen an increasing number of children and teens struggling with debilitating anxiety in recent years.
“There is a strong mind and body connection,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “When we experience stress, we not only experience it emotionally, but also physically in the body.”
When a patient comes to her with several medical issues already ruled out, it can be helpful, she said.
But she also has to think like a detective, searching all the clues from previous evaluations.
A psychological evaluation showed that Kelly felt overwhelmed in certain situations, while other things in her life were also causing increased stress.
The diagnosis? Anxiety.
Kelly began working with Dr. Barber Garcia on different exercises to help her manage the pain.
“When I first met Kelly, she talked about having symptoms of panic attacks—moments of feeling overwhelmed, heart racing, abdominal pain, hotness, tingles, shaking and more,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “She had never thought it could be something else, until we sat down and discussed anxiety and how it affects the body both physically and mentally.”
Over the course of a year, Kelly and Dr. Barber Garcia met virtually for therapy sessions about every two weeks.
“She’s the best thing that has ever happened to me, hands down,” Kelly said. “I love her. She’s the most flexible human being ever.”
With Kelly’s boyfriend leaving for the Navy, they talked through strategies on how to cope with that change.
Dr. Barber Garcia helped Kelly understand the relationship between thoughts, behaviors and emotions, and how easy it is to get caught up in negative thinking traps.
“An original thought might be something as simple as concern about how you are falling behind on assignments in a class, and then anxiety steps in,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “Before you know it, you’re wondering what will happen if you fail the class, and begin to think you’ll never graduate high school and become a failure.”
Anxiety can take a normal worry to a much more serious level, where it’s no longer real, she said.
Strategies like mindfulness, diaphragmatic breathing and meditation can help patients overcome these challenges.
‘Proud of myself’
Months later, Kelly hasn’t experienced a major panic attack.
She said she’s working hard to keep negative thoughts at bay, and she has finally reached a point where she can control her own body with breathing exercises and other skills Dr. Barber Garcia taught her.
After nearly a year of therapy, treatment and various exercises, her future is looking brighter.
“I’m proud of myself now,” Kelly said. “What Dr. Barber Garcia has done for me is something I wouldn’t change for anything.”
Kelly said her friends and family have been among her biggest supporters, always by her side through it all.
She said it’s important to learn to talk about mental health, despite any stigmas.
“I was against the idea of anxiety at first and thought it wasn’t a real thing,” Kelly said. “But here I am today, one of the biggest advocates for mental health at my school and for everyone around me.
“Mental illness shouldn’t have a stigma. And I hope no one is embarrassed by it.”
While she hasn’t experienced any bouts of pain lately, Kelly said it can spike sometimes. But with the techniques she’s learned in therapy, she has learned how to avoid moments of crippling pain.
“Now I know when it’s coming on,” she said. “My stomach starts to twist, but I can work through it with coping mechanisms.”
She’s already practicing golf for her senior year.
“I feel like everyone has realized this is our last year together, so we’re looking forward to hanging out and making it a great year,” she said.
She plans to attend Ferris State University after graduation, where she’ll study pediatric optometry.
“I could not be more proud of how Kelly has implemented the tools she has learned,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “She’s really made them her own and she’s doing so much better.”
Success doesn’t always mean being completely free of symptoms or anxiety, she said. It sometimes means knowing exactly what to do when something happens, and getting through it calmly.
“She’s definitely on a path to a bright and successful future,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “And I continue to look forward to our visits in the months ahead.”