MIAMI — Xenia Boiko’s high school years were marked by uncontrollable seizures and a fear that her life would not amount to much.

“When I was growing up, I felt like, ‘What am I going to become?'” Boiko recalled. “‘I’m probably going to end up in the hospital some day.'”

Boiko’s high school principal wanted to send her to a center for students with special needs, and Boiko’s parents worried that she wouldn’t be able to graduate because her epilepsy caused her to miss days of school.

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“I ended up graduating with straight A’s, but I won’t forget that experience of having my principal tell me I can’t be like everyone else,” Boiko said. “I don’t ever want to be the one who makes a child feel that way. I want to be the one to give them that push.”

After getting an associate’s degree at Broward College, Boiko decided to become the special education teacher she wishes she’d had in high school, someone who believes in her students’ ability to succeed. She enrolled in a teaching program at Florida Atlantic University, where she studied while battling through as many as two to three grand mal seizures a week, the type that cause her to lose consciousness and fall to the floor.

Boiko transferred back to Broward College after two years because she felt the administration had been more accommodating of her medical condition. She started out as a part-time student due to the frequency of her seizures and, though she felt supported at the college, still had her doubts about whether she would ever be able to graduate. “There is no way that I’m going to be able to get through college with my disability,” she remembers thinking at one point.

This time at Broward College, Boiko had some extra help: a service dog named Bella who can often sense when Boiko is going to have a seizure. Bella wears a harness holding Boiko’s medicine and a small pillow so Boiko doesn’t hit her head when she falls. Bella also helps Boiko calm down in stressful situations, which can trigger a seizure.

“It would have definitely been a lot harder” to get through college without Bella, Boiko said. “She’s there, super dog at my side.”

When Boiko started her student-teaching assignment last semester at Driftwood Middle School in Hollywood, her students loved having Bella in the classroom. They were disappointed when Boiko told them not to pet Bella while she had her vest on, since that’s when she’s in work mode. But Boiko tried to make time at the end of every class to take Bella’s vest off for a few minutes so the students could pet her.

Boiko taught in a class for students with intellectual disabilities and found that her experience as a student with special needs helped her relate. When her students were upset about not being able to do an assignment and blamed themselves, Boiko told them what she would have wanted to hear in that situation.

“Although it’s been hard for me my whole life, I think I have gotten a gift from it that other people don’t have because a teacher coming in won’t have that,” Boiko said of her experience as a student with special needs.

When Boiko tried to talk to one upset student at Driftwood Middle School, he told her not to waste her time. “I’m not going to do anything in life,” he said, according to Boiko. “Why don’t you just leave me alone?” Boiko comforted him by telling him that if she could get through school with her seizures, he could do it, too.

Boiko graduated from Broward College in December, walking across the stage while Bella waited in the audience with Boiko’s proud family.

“If I can get my degree, then so can anyone else,” Boiko said. “I’m proof that it’s possible for everyone.”

© 2017 The Miami Herald
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