Tara Jameson has the looks of a young woman, but the body of someone whose won a battle for life.
And she has the medical charts to prove it.
"My doctor says I have more medical records than his oldest patients," Jameson said. "I can cart them behind me."
The 21-year-old Valdosta native was one of 464 students who graduated from Mercer University on Sunday afternoon and recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, given to the graduate who best exemplifies excellence in character and leadership.
Although no one would notice any difference between her and the other sea of happy graduates, there's something that separates her from the rest.
During her sophomore year at college, Jameson almost died after contracting E. coli - bacteria that causes an inflammation of the small intestine - while vacationing in the Dominican Republic.
Jameson overcame brain seizures, failed kidneys and a coma and then had to learn to walk, talk, read and write again before returning to school.
She only missed a half semester of classes and doubled up the following fall in order to graduate on time.
"Physically, it was one of the hardest things I've done," Jameson said. "Just walking from my dorm room to class was exhausting. But I wanted to be back at Mercer ... I wanted to be home."
Jameson and her friends had wanted something a little different for their Spring Break 2002 and decided a trip out of the country would do the trick.
During a scuba lesson, Jameson became ill and couldn't continue. She spent the rest of her vacation at the hospital and in her room.
She didn't call her parents, Vic and Jolene Jameson, until the very end because she didn't want them to worry.
"We all thought it was a traveling sickness and that I would be fine," Tara Jameson said. "But on the plane ride back, I couldn't even walk ... they had to bring me out in a wheelchair."
When Tara didn't improve, her parents took her to a Valdosta hospital where doctors determined she was deathly ill.
By the time the brain seizures started, doctors said there was nothing they could do to save her.
"Her immune system just started attacking her body," Vic Jameson said. "We were losing her."
Doctors advised the family to take Tara to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fla., where experts were more equipped to handle her medical needs.
Shortly after she arrived in Florida, Tara's kidneys failed and she went into a coma. By this time, she had contracted TTP, a blood disorder characterized by low platelets, low red blood cell count and had to have daily treatments.
"(Doctors) didn't say she was going to die, they just gave percentages," Vic Jameson said. "When we got there that first day, there were 30 to 50 people in the waiting room ... we just sat there and prayed."
Family and friends kept their prayer vigil around the clock at the hospital.
When school officials found out she had fallen victim to a deadly illness during spring vacation, they opened their arms and reached out to one of their own. Her sorority, Alpha Delta Phi, held a blood drive and many people reached out through e-mails sending their thoughts and prayers.
"We had literally thousands of people praying for her from all around the world," Jolene Jameson said. "People we didn't even know were thinking about her and saying a prayer."
Tara Jameson spent two weeks in a coma and then woke up to a body covered in tubes and wire.
"My first memory when I came out of my coma was my sister Jenna being right in my face," Tara Jameson said. "I didn't know where I was or how long I had been there."
The fact was Tara Jameson had a hard time remembering a lot of things: She couldn't remember how to tell time, spell a word, type a sentence or read an e-mail.
"It was like being a baby again," Tara Jameson said. "I had to learn everything over again."
Before she could go home, Tara had to start walking around an inside track. She and her father would take their daily walks with other patients.
"When I would walk by the children's ward, all the kids would start crying," Tara Jameson said. "I guess it looked painful."
Less than a month after coming home from the hospital, Tara Jameson said she was ready to go back to school. Against the advice of her parents and doctors, she moved back to Macon and Mercer's campus for summer classes.
"I wanted to go back to my life and my family at Mercer," Jameson said. "I didn't want to be sick anymore."
Two years later, Jameson has almost fully recovered from her illness. Although she tires easily and has arthritis that warns her of upcoming bad weather, the new college graduate said she is ready to move forward with life.
Jameson plans to start medical school in the fall and would one day like to be an emergency room doctor. She also would like to do missionary work and help others who cannot help themselves.
She doesn't regret her illness, but thinks it's helped her better understand how to help others.
"There's no way in the world I would take it back," Jameson said. "I have this sincere appreciation for life. When I wake up, I see a day different than a lot of college students ... I see what we can accomplish by giving of ourselves and reaching out to help others."