- Associated Press - Monday, January 8, 2018

KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) - Indian Trail High School and Academy senior and blooming artist Jaci Zemenchik is on a mission.

“I don’t like seeing blank space. I see every blank space, as an artist, as an opportunity to create and add to the world. I like doing it. I like painting a lot, just creating in general,” said Zemenchik, of Kenosha.

The 17-year-old said her passion for painting likely comes from the time she spent in the hospital.

“I would always see so many blank walls,” she told the Kenosha News . “Over the years, I taught myself how to draw and paint.”

Of her voluntary efforts creating murals, Zemenchik said, “I think it’s a good way for me to give back to the community and my school, to add more color to the world.”

She hopes to draw and paint for a career that could include doing animated movies. Meanwhile, she continues donating her time, efforts and artistic skills to brighten others’ lives.

“This is a way to improve myself: by using your talents to help other people, give back to the community and try to improve other people’s lives with the best you can offer,” Zemenchik said.

She has done so at Mahone Middle School, Hospitality House in Kenosha and the Ronald McDonald House in Milwaukee across from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

Her current work in progress is being done in pieces.

It will be mounted on a central staircase wall at Indian Trail. The mural depicts the school’s hawk mascot, in flight, lifting in its contrail literary works, musical instruments, test tubes, lab beakers, a quill pen and ink well, images from history and other academic icons.

Like other murals she has done, it incorporates playful whimsy: A skeleton from anatomy class studies a human brain held aloft in its bony, upturned palm.

On the final day of her junior year in June, Zemenchik pitched the idea to Sarah Gapinski, one of her art teachers along with Michael Schroeder.

“I had no idea she’d agree with it,” Zemenchik said, eyes shining brightly and smiling excitedly as she recalled Gapinski’s response.

Gapinski brought the idea to Principal Maria Kotz, who gave it a thumbs up.

Zemenchik is working to finish the mural and have it mounted in the staircase from the first floor to the next landing before she graduates June 2 with the class of 2018.

This year, Zemenchik is studying drawing under Schroeder. Gapinski, who taught her through her junior year, continues to mentor Zemenchik, offering her guidance, helping her stay focused.

“I think, because Jaci can only talk in a whisper, this is how she really expresses herself, through her art,” Gapinski said.

Hearing Gapinski say this, the diminutive teen again smiles brightly and nods enthusiastically.

When she was a baby, doctors in Bloomington, Illinois, where Jaci and her family lived before moving in 2008 to Kenosha, initially were stymied in determining the cause of Jaci’s difficulty breathing, according to her mother, Kira Zemenchik.

A registered nurse, Kira Zemenchik teaches in the Certified Nursing Assistant program at the College of Lake County just across the Wisconsin border in Illinois. She and her husband, Robert Zemenchik, also have another daughter, Jenna Zemenchik, who is three years older than Jaci Zemenchik.

Kira Zemenchik said she never imagined Jaci Zemenchik would be so involved creating art by the time she was in middle school and now through her senior year in high school.

“At the beginning, I didn’t think she would make it to her fifth birthday. She was very sick with a tracheostomy,” Kira Zemenchiksaid.

At 2, medical imaging revealed a tumor in Jaci Zemenchik’s chest. It impinged on her lungs and had collapsed the left one.

“We had no idea,” Kira Zemenchik said.

The tumor proved benign. But surgeons found the mass extended from above her abdomen to the base of her skull. It encased her lungs, windpipe and trachea and extended to the base of her skull.

Doctors performed a tracheostomy, a small, surgical opening from the skin into the windpipe, then inserted a curved, plastic tube into the windpipe, enabling her to breathe through the tube. Jaci Zemenchik wouldn’t breathe normally, through her nose and mouth, until its removal the summer after fifth grade.

The nine-and-a-half hour surgery to remove the tumor led to paralysis of her vocal chords. Hence, Jaci Zemenchik’s oral speech is limited to a whisper.

When she was in third grade, doctors found a remaining tumor that had grown around her spine. After surgery to remove the rest of the tumor, there were more operations. As she grew, rods were implanted to help lengthen her spine and correct the curvature caused by the tumor.

From the time she was 2 until today, the 17-year-old high school student underwent 32 surgeries, including placement of a stent to open an airway in her left lung.

Because of the complexity of her case, she and her family traveled back-and-forth from Bloomington to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for procedures and treatment. In Cincinnati, the family at times was able to stay with her at a Ronald McDonald House, which provided cost-free accommodations in a family and child-friendly setting.

Moving to Kenosha in 2008 enabled Jaci Zemenchik to see doctors and other medical professionals at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, making for less expensive and time-consuming commutes.

“At 4, the doctor told us she could die on the operating table,” Kira Zemenchik said. “She really is a miracle. For her to be alive, for us, is really miraculous. It’s really a blessing for us that she’s doing so well. We’re so grateful. I cry sometimes looking back. It’s so hard to believe; to go from 24-hour nursing care, to this.”


Information from: Kenosha News, http://www.kenoshanews.com

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