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Walk to get diploma fulfills senior's dream

Grand Island woman has debilitating illness

News Staff Reporter
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Mark Mulville/Buffalo News
Jean Marie Dragonette celebrates Thursday night after getting her diploma despite a disorder that made it difficult for her to walk across the stage.


The principal of Grand Island High School had one request for the audience that filled Kleinhans Music Hall for the school's 40th annual commencement last night.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I ask that as I call the names, please refrain from any cheering or noise," James R. Dempsey said as he prepared to introduce the Class of 2005.

It didn't take long for the crowd to break the rules.

A 45-second ovation, with cheers and whoops mixed in, broke out when Jean Marie Dragonette, a 19-year-old senior who was born with a progressive neuromuscular disorder, rose from her chair and walked across the stage, next to her father, to accept her diploma.

The ovation grew louder when Dragonette, whose mobility and breathing are impaired by the disorder and the scoliosis it caused, turned to the crowd and pumped her diploma in the air, a wide smile spreading across her face.

Dragonette has lived in the Deaconess Division of Buffalo General Hospital, an extended-care facility, since December 2002. She breathes with the help of a ventilator and requires constant medical attention, and was tutored at Deaconess for most of her senior year. Her father, Anthony, said that earning her diploma and joining her classmates at her graduation became a primary goal for Jean Marie.

"She's been working on it for many years, as many kids have," he said. "This is a very touching time for her, to finally be able to see her dreams come to fruition and be able to make it across."

Cooperation between Kaleida Health, which operates Deaconess, and Rural/Metro Medical Services allowed Dragonette to participate in the ceremony. Rural/Metro transported her from Deaconess to Kleinhans in an ambulance, along with a paramedic, an emergency medical technician and her respiratory therapist. They stood by as she walked across the stage, using only an oxygen tank, and not a ventilator, to help her breathe.

Although her participation in graduation would have been impossible without the help of others, Dragonette earned the applause she received, said her grandmother, Susan Sheehan.

"So many people were involved to get to this day," Sheehan said. "But this is Jean's day."

Dragonette attended classes at Grand Island with the help of a wheelchair and oxygen tank until a ventilator became a necessity, said her respiratory therapist, Lisa Rapple. She undergoes three one-hour sessions of physical therapy every week at Deaconess, and had been practicing walking 65 feet - the distance she would have to walk across Kleinhans' stage - while strengthening her lungs with breathing exercises.

Despite the physical obstacles Dragonette had to overcome, her family was not surprised by her success, her father said.

"It is a surprise that with Jean's physical condition she was able to do it, but it doesn't come as any surprise with her dedication," he said. "Jean's very strong and very hard-working. Jean has maintained since Day One that she will graduate, she will indeed walk across the stage. The girl's a fighter."