After undergoing major brain surgery in 2012, youth star Amy Pejkovic had to fight just to learn how to walk again. Last month, she set a new personal best in the high jump. The Australian talks to SPIKES about battling a brain tumour, the gruelling comeback, and why she won't let any of that that stand in her way.
Violently sick for days and experiencing the most excruciating headaches, Australian high jumper Amy Pejkovic was rushed to hospital by her mother one day after her 19th birthday, in February 2012.
"It was as if someone was stabbing me in the back of my head and dragging me backwards and forwards," she recalls.
Having twice been wrongly diagnosed with an ear infection, the 2009 world youth silver medallist assumed the deeply unpleasant symptoms were just the by-product of a nasty viral infection.
Nothing could prepare her for the news that she had a 5cm-long tumour, the size of a golf ball, growing on her brain. It needed an immediate operation.
Breaking down into tears and shaking uncontrollably, her mind understandably became scrambled as the enormity of the situation hit her like a ten-tonne truck.
"I thought I was going to die," says Pejkovic, 21. "The next thought was ‘why me? I’m too young.’ It sounds like a cliché but your whole life does flash before your eyes. I thought: I have so much I want to achieve in my life. I want to be there for my family. I want to get married and have children I want to experience all of that."
Pejkovic celebrates her world youth silver medal with her team mates in Italy in 2009.
Six months earlier, Pejkovic had started to be troubled by the occasional headache. Thinking nothing of it, she took Nurofen in an effort to dull the pain. Weekly headaches gradually became more regular, and the pain more intense.
Prolonged bouts of nausea started to accompany the headaches, to the point where it started to badly hamper her training. Her coaching team at the time suspected she was using this as an excuse to dodge sessions.
"Everyone thought I was complaining and trying to get out of training because I didn’t want to do athletics any more," she says. Her local GP, and a sports physician, diagnosed middle ear inflammation and put the Australian high jumper on a course of antibiotics.
When tests revealed the true problem, the tumour was found to be benign, and had not spread to other parts of her body. But it was so big, it had started to block the fluids in her brain.
"They said if I hadn’t come into hospital when I did, a few days later I would have died."
During the invasive surgery process that followed, surgeons opened up the back of her head, leaving her whole body in a state of huge trauma. She woke up after surgery in "intense pain". She lost 10kg (22lbs) in weight, and became "all skin and bone".
The operation was hailed a success but it was a long road to full recovery for the Sydneysider.
In the days that followed surgery she describes the energy required to move her body into an upright position in bed as comparable to that of running a marathon. She had to re-learn how to walk and eat. "It was like I was a baby again," she says.
A couple of months after the surgery, she was barely able to shuffle around the track in an attempt to jog. Yet slowly she built up her fitness levels and recalls the moment she could jump again as "like winning the lotto".
As a consequence of the operation on the left-side of her brain, she has suffered co-ordination issues with the right side of her body. Pejkovic remembers dropping a plate of pasta, as her right hand wobbled uncontrollably.
"I would be training with the younger kids, and they would just fly past me," she says. "My right and left side were just not in tune. I had no rhythm. For a while I considered packing it all in."
Yet Pejkovic persisted, and is beginning to reap the rewards. Three times this year she has jumped beyond the Commonwealth Games B standard of 1.83m, twice matching her lifetime best of 1.86m before clearing 1.87m in Brisbane in March.
This was her first outright personal best for five years, and she has a chance of representing Australia at this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Despite her painstaking journey, she maintains a very simple philosophy for life and sport.
"You just can’t let something like a brain tumour ruin your life," she says. "I compete for me. It is not like I’m proving anyone wrong. I just had to show to other kids and adults that you can still go out and achieve what you want to achieve in life."
"Before surgery I did take things for granted,” she says. “Now just waking up everyday feels like a blessing."