As a toddler, Ryan Donaghy suffered from frequent head pain.
“My mom told me I would always hold my head and cry,” he said.
At first, his parents didn’t know what their son’s problem was.
At age 3, they found out. Young Ryan was diagnosed with Chiari malformation. The base of his brain does not sit within his skull. As a result, he faced many medical issues, including hydrocephalus, a life-threatening buildup of spinal fluid in the brain.
Today, he’s 18 and a recent high school graduate. His childhood wasn’t easy. He had chronic headaches and 15 surgeries, including three major brain surgeries. Seven of those surgeries were in the last five years.
“I didn’t know the severity at a younger age, but it was a big struggle through high school,” he said.
RecentlyDonaghy was recognized for overcoming his challenges. On July 31, he received a GlaxoSmithKline Opportunity Scholarship during a ceremony at the company’s location in the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia.
Donaghy, who graduated in June from Father Judge High School, will attend Community College of Philadelphia’s Northeast Regional Center. The scholarship is worth a total of $8,000 for two years of study. The money will go to tuition, books and materials.
“I’m excited,” he said about winning the scholarship and a framed certificate. “I’ll use the funds to further my education.”
Donaghy, a Torresdale resident, applied for the scholarship program, which is administered by The Philadelphia Foundation.
Hundreds of young Philadelphians applied for the scholarship, which is awarded to “persons who have the potential to succeed despite adversity and who have an exceptional desire to better themselves through further education.”
Donaghy was among 25 finalists, and he received a recommendation from David Mulholland, his former health teacher during sophomore year at Judge.
Mulholland, chairman of the school’s health and physical education department, wrote, “Ryan’s quiet, unassuming and courageous way of dealing with life challenges will hopefully be recognized as a result of this scholarship.”
Donaghy received an “A” in class. Mulholland wrote, “Watching Ryan deal with his adversities, while still getting one of the highest grades in the class, resulted in his peers not using excuses whenever their performance did not equal his effort.”
Mulholland also quoted from an essay written by Kaitlyn Donaghy about her older brother. She wrote, “Ryan is brave, loving and a role model. Not only does Ryan give great advice, but he can make anyone’s day brighter. The world would be a better place if everyone tried their best like my brother Ryan.”
Donaghy missed little school time despite all of his health issues. He was among the top 15 percent academically in Judge’s senior class.
“I wanted to stay in school so I stayed caught up with my studies,” he said.
At the ceremony, Donaghy was joined by his parents, Pat and Lorraine; his brother, Danny; his sister, Kaitlyn; his grandparents, Patricia and Joseph Wilson; his girlfriend, Meghan Conroy; his friend, Tyler Wagner; and his boss at St. Martha Parish, Kevin Long.
The teenager, who mostly has been treated at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, counted on them and others as he neared all his surgeries.
“I was worried, of course, but I’ve had a great support system of family and friends who’ve helped me make it through,” he said. “And my doctors have all been great.”
In a brief speech, Donaghy thanked his family, friends and coworkers at St. Martha Parish, where he handles maintenance issues. He’s a graduate of the Academy Road school.
Donaghy, who was not permitted by doctors to play organized sports, had his last surgery in December. He has a shunt in his head to relieve fluid.
To keep busy, he started playing the guitar. He’s played the piano for two years and worked at St. Martha for 4½ years.
The teen explained that certain activities — recreational sports, working and studying — can lead to headaches. He takes over-the-counter medicine for his pain.
“I still get headaches from time to time. It’s a continuing struggle,” he said. “If I feel something, I’ll go to the doctor.”
Donaghy plans to earn a two-year associate’s degree in liberal arts and then move on to a four-year university to study nursing.
“I’ve been around it my whole life,” he said of doctors’ offices and hospitals. “I want to help others with their adversities.” ••