By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Brandi Zizza, 17, rarely left her Bradford home last year — with the exception of all-too regular medical appointments.
Two years ago, just 10 days into her sophomore year at the private Trinity High School in Manchester, N.H., Brandi became ill and was diagnosed with fibromayalgia, an incurable autoimmune disease that includes symptoms such as chronic muscle pain, debilitating fatigue, sleep problems and joint stiffness.
Despite being unable to attend school at all last year and only going to classes occasionally this year, Brandi will be among 387 Haverhill High School students graduating Sunday. She and her family want to thank a special teacher who played a big role in making that possible.
Kimberly Zizza, a local attorney and Brandi’s mom, said the family turned to the Haverhill school district for help when they realized Brandi was too sick to attend school. Since then, the district has sent six teachers, including high school science teacher Kerry Murphy, to Brandi’s home to continue her instruction. Murphy made an especially strong impression.
“Ms. Murphy inspired Brandi and never let her give up,” Kimberly Zizza said, adding that Murphy helped the family develop an education plan for Brandi. “She showed compassion and truly is the best teacher either of my daughters has ever had. ... She became like another family member, often staying late and having dinner with us.”
In a recent interview in the Zizza family’s living room, Kimberly Zizza, Brandi and her older sister Mikaela, 20, and Murphy recalled the last two years.
“I barely left the house at all last year, except to go to the hospital or therapy,” Brandi said. “Other than my family, the only other people I saw were my tutors.”
Brandi said her health improved enough this year that she was able to occasionally take classes at the high school, while the district continued to send Murphy and other tutors to her house. Brandi focused so heavily on her course work that she is actually graduating early, after what should have been her junior year. Kimberly Zizza said her daughter has been accepted to St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and will major in chemistry in the fall.
“I’m looking forward to graduating (Sunday) and going to St. Anselm with my sister next year, but it’s a little strange because I don’t know that many of the seniors I’m going to be graduating with,” Brandi said.
Murphy, who is finishing her fourth year as a Haverhill High teacher, said Brandi is the only student she has tutored outside of school for the district. She said she was assigned as Brandi’s tutor due to Brandi’s interest in science.
“She’s been fantastic,” Murphy said of Brandi. “In two years, she never cancelled a single, grueling three-hour tutoring session despite her illness, even when she didn’t feel well. I cancelled a few times because I was sick and was worried about making her sick, but she didn’t back out once.”
Kimberly Zizza said Haverhill school officials worked with the family to overcome every obstacle to Brandi continuing her education, including making special accommodations for taking MCAS and SAT exams.
Murphy made such an impression that Brandi said she plans to major in chemistry at college. Murphy taught her chemistry last year and a medical terminology course this year.
Murphy’s impact on the Zizzas wasn’t limited to school work.
Last month, while Murphy and Brandi were studying, Mikaela got dizzy and almost fainted while sitting at the kitchen table. Murphy, who is also emergency medical technician, stabilized Michaela and called an ambulance.
Mikaela, who is a second-year criminal justice major at St. Anselm College, spent 11 days in a Boston hospital. Like her sister, she has been diagnosed with a serious autoimmune disease.
“Ms. Murphy has been an extreme comfort to all of us,” Kimberly Zizza said. “She is truly an angel that was sent to us to help get us through our most difficult times.”
Newgraduation details When: Sunday, 1 p.m. (postponed from Friday due to rain) Where: Trinity Stadium, Lincoln Avenue Who: 387 students to receive diplomas