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ELHS graduate marks milestone despite ill years

By Kathy Jefcoats

The Eagle's Landing High School Class of 2004 possesses nothing if not perseverance, said Principal Dr. Ethan Hildreth, and the seniors needed it Friday night as they graduated on the football field in the rain.

"We all have the opportunity to show that same perseverance tonight," Hildreth said, to a rousing cheer of support.

The seniors were met with lots of whoops and hollers – not out of a disrespectful stance against the dignity of the ceremony but because it is hard to applaud when holding an umbrella.

As they took to the field, the graduates tilted their chairs to drain them of pooled rainwater. Some held their commencement programs over their mortarboard in a vain attempt to stay dry. Band members wore rain ponchos.

Dimpal Bhakta gave inspirational advice to her fellow graduates.

"Take a risk and have no regrets," she said, so when the seniors are grandparents they will have a "sense of peace and fulfillment."

Adnan Elhammali welcomed the class and supporters.

Salutatorian Brittany White and valedictorian Justin Mayhue offered congratulations and hope for the future. All four urged their classmates to never forget where they came from.

The epitome of perseverance, Kumari Pathak graduated with the Eagle's Landing class and bid farewell to childhood with a look to the future and fulfilling her life's dreams.

Unlike most of her peers, however, Kumari's parents weren't always entirely sure she would reach that rite of passage and not because they doubted her academic ability.

"She almost didn't make it twice," said Kamlesh Pathak, Kumari's mother. "She was born with a sick heart but has really come a long way."

Kumari was born with ventricular septal defect and truncus type four – a hole in the lower part of her heart. The baby got no circulation to her lungs.

"She was a miracle baby," her mother said. "She slept in our bed between me and her father for her first five years. We didn't know if she was going to live from one day to the next. She was a totally blue baby."

Kamlesh still cries when she thinks of those early years and her daughter's precarious health. Kumari turns away from her mother when the tears flow, shielding her eyes from the show of raw emotion.

Kamlesh came to America 30 years ago from India via England. She was transferred to help open the Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, where she still works in the intensive care unit as a nurse. Six months after her arrival, neighbor Satisha Pathak followed her to America. The two wed in a ceremony arranged by relatives and began their own family.

Daughter Reena, now 27, came first, followed by Kumari, 18. Reena excelled in school, earning two master's degrees and traveling around the country as a health-care consultant. As a teen-ager, Reena took on the role as second mother to her sister.

"She was like a parent to her," Kamlesh said. "I had to work two jobs so Reena helped take care of her."

Satisha also suffers heart problems and had a double stroke in 1992.

At 5, Kumari had reconstructive surgery and almost died from complications. At 15, she underwent the same procedure.

"It was during finals week of my freshman year," Kumari said.

Still, she persevered, persisted and managed to graduate with her class despite her health problems. However, Kumari shares credit with school officials who helped and supported her – counselor Susan Livingston, English teacher Patricia Schernekau and health care sciences teacher Jane Orendorff.

"They've been really sweet and supportive," Kumari said. "I am so happy about graduation."

The family is too. Kamlesh has planned a celebration June 6 at Melan Indian Restaurant in Morrow with 100 relatives, including cousins coming from England. On June 13, the family will observe a puja, a Hindu religious gathering that will bless Kumari, at their Stockbridge home.

Inside the home is a traditional Hindu shrine where the family prays daily. Kumari and Reena are the first of their family to be born in America but hold fast to their heritage.

"I know my values and respect them more than other kids in the American culture," said Kumari, who spends her free time in decidedly American ways – watching television, taking in movies and chatting with friends online.

Kumari finished high school with a modest 3.3 grade-point average – all As in her health-care classes – and will begin her college studies at Clayton College & State University with an eye on Emory University to complete her medical degree in pediatrics.

"She's very determined," Kamlesh said. "I struggled to make my way up and I think she'll make it too."

Kumari will spend the summer volunteering at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and continue her volunteer work at a children's clinic in Mt. Zion.

"I wanted to give back to the community for everything I have been blessed with," she said.