Teen achiever conquers mystery illness

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- As we salute outstanding young achievers in our weekly Reaching 4 Excellence feature, we often spotlight kids who aren't necessarily the smartest or most talented or the greatest leaders. Sometimes they are average kids who rise to a challenge and do something extraordinary. So it is with a teenager whose persistence and courage enabled him to overcome a mysterious, painful and debilitating health challenge.

Practicing on his friend Grace Clay, Cody Birdwell sharpens his skills in makeup and nail work. Cody picked this up in theater classes at Turner High School where he was in charge of cast makeup and performed on stage. And after he goes on a two year Mormon Church mission trip, Cody intends to go to college and then open his own salon.

"It's lots of fun," said Cody. "It makes people really smile a lot, whether you're making them beautiful or whether you're making them a zombie with stage makeup."

Cody also intends to keep performing with his dad as much as he can -- guitar, singing and a little light comedy -- especially at nursing homes -- to bring cheer to the ailing, often lonely residents.

"They are probably the best audience you can have because they just love that you're there," said Cody. "I just love making people happy."

For awhile, actually quite awhile, Cody wasn't sure he'd be able to pursue his life and career goals and dreams, wasn't sure he'd get through high school and graduate, wasn't even quite sure he'd be alive today.

"It was 24-7, always there," said Cody. "How I always described it was like, you know, this knife, you lit it on fire and you're just, like, constantly stabbing a person right here (gestures to his abdomen.) It's just over and over and over."

That started when Cody was 13. And for two years, despite the best efforts of health specialists running all sorts of tests, Cody and his parents didn't know what was wracking his body with pain and draining his strength. Finally he got a diagnosis.

"I had over 1000 parasites in my body just kind of tearing up my immune system, my digestive system, just kind of everything," said Cody.

Cody went on special medicine and nutrition therapy but it would be another year before he was better. And all that time -- three years -- Cody was homebound, too sick and weak to go to school.

"So we were concerned about Cody graduating on time," said Carol Cox, Turner School District Alternative Services Coordinator.

But Cox said Cody would not be defeated. With Cox leading a team of educators keeping him on course, Cody rose to the challenge, diligently studying at home, mostly on his own.

"I've had a few other students with his same medical diagnosis," said Cox. "None of those students completed school (Cody) managed. And he not only managed, he worked so hard that, obviously, he has just excelled."

"I wasn't quite sure what it was going to be but I wanted to have a future," said Cody. "I wanted to make sure my family had a future."

Cody persevered and triumphed as he got back to Turner High School for his junior and senior years, still working to make up lost ground, still sometimes in pain. But he did graduate. And he got great grades and honors in vocal music, theater, debate and other courses and activities.
"I just think positively," said Cody. "And being happy and just enjoying life is the best way to be no matter what the situation is. I tried to never play up my illness. I wanted to focus on something greater. I wanted to focus on making other people's lives better." And to keep fighting and keep moving forward.

Cody even became an Eagle Scout during the long ordeal of his illness and recovery. And he was able to get in quite a bit of performing with his dad at nursing homes to bring some happiness to people Cody really empathizes with.

Fox 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Wednesday on Fox 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on Fox 4 News at 8 a.m. and noon.

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