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Bright future cut short for a Dixie Hollins junior Hayleigh Mercurio

ST. PETERSBURG — In another 10 years or so, Hayleigh Mercurio saw herself living in the Georgia mountains, preferably near a river. She would have completed medical school by then and would be working as a pediatrician.

She and Ronnie, another junior at Dixie Hollins High School, would be married and starting a family. With a 4.3 grade-point average going into the fall semester, she seemed to be doing everything possible to get the education she would need.

In the meantime, she held down a weekend job at Fray's Donut House, fed the homeless and attended a weekly women's Bible study group at her church. Peers describe Hayleigh as friendly and sensitive, and last year voted her onto the homecoming court.

She had but one adversary — a rare disorder called fibrous dysplasia, which causes abnormal bone growth. The condition was putting pressure on her optic nerve, resulting in blindness in one eye.

Surgery a year ago restored most of that sight. A second surgery Oct. 26 also appeared to have achieved its goals of removing abnormal growth. She was awake after the surgery at All Children's Hospital and talking, her family said.

Later that night, Hayleigh slipped into a coma and was rushed into emergency surgery. She died Friday. Hayleigh Mercurio was 17.

"Some people describe her as popular," said Dan Evans, the Dixie Hollins principal and namesake of Evans Entourage, a student leadership group in which Hayleigh was a member. "I think I describe her as likable. She was popular because she was likable."

An August MySpace entry pegs her mood as "chipper." Friends say she wanted them to feel chipper, too.

"She would blow up her face like a puffer fish to make you laugh," said Lea Sanders, who worked with Hayleigh on the school yearbook.

Her course load was advanced placement biology, Spanish, zoology, English, American history and journalism. She earned A's in them all.

As the yearbook's buck-stops-here photo editor, she mastered what faculty adviser Sherry Brock called the toughest job, scheduling group photos.

"She was 35 years old, walking around in a 17-year-old body," said Brock.

Well, not exactly, her family said.

Hayleigh was also a typical teenager who filled her room to overflowing with elephant figurines and prints. She liked snuggling on the couch with the family dogs, Oz and Rexie. And she got her cheerleader friends to teach her how to moonwalk.

Her childhood was not so benign.

Eight years ago, when Hayleigh was 9, she and three younger sisters were adopted by Michael and Deborah Mercurio after their biological parents lost parental rights.

They joined a blended family in which prefixes such as "step" or "adoptive" became irrelevant.

"We have eight kids now," said Deborah Mercurio, 53. "They have just morphed into one huge family."

At first, Hayleigh had to be pushed to get good grades, that B's and C's weren't good enough.

Over time, her mother said, "She knew not only what was expected of her but what she could do. She started saying, 'Gee, I actually can be valedictorian if I want to. I can be a doctor if I want to.' "

She kept her spirits up after doctors discovered the bone disorder. Living with pressure on her left eye meant giving up her place in the band, where she played the French horn, or becoming a cheerleader.

Even temporarily losing sight in one eye did not slow her down. "She never lost stride," her mother said.

Hayleigh jokingly compared herself to Quasimodo, the one-eyed hero of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She talked about her first surgery "with an evil glint in her eye," Brock said, as if she enjoyed making adults squeamish with the details.

She planned to attend the University of Florida or the University of South Florida, then go to medical school. Ronnie Clark, a two-sport athlete at Dixie Hollins and her boyfriend for the last year and a half, would major in business.

They would enter college with a long-term plan of marriage and children.

Hayleigh attended school Oct. 25, the day before her scheduled surgery, which was expected to take two weeks of recovery time. She submitted term papers in advance.

She talked to family members after the surgery and seemed to be in good spirits. She fell into a coma that night. Deborah Mercurio said doctors told her Hayleigh had experienced an "acute catastrophic event."

All Children's Hospital did not immediately return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment. Before removing her from life support, doctors acted on Hayleigh's wishes to donate her organs.

Friday morning, news of her death rippled through Dixie Hollins. Two-thirds of the student body gathered in a courtyard at the end of the school day outside the principal's office. They shared five minutes of silence, students and teachers crying and hugging.

A sense of shock has lingered this week. "People are crying left to right, basically," said Lea Sanders.

"We occasionally have a student who will pass away," Evans said. "But in this case you have a student who was exceedingly friendly and joyous and likable, and who passed away at a time when people didn't see it coming."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.BIOGRAPHY

Hayleigh Michelle Mercurio

Born: Oct. 17, 1993.

Died: Oct. 29, 2010.

Survivors: Father and mother Michael and Deborah Mercurio; sisters Michelle, Amanda, Elizabeth, Hannah and Angela; brothers Joseph and Kenneth; biological parents William and Chastity Rizzo.

Service: 4 p.m. today ; Northside Baptist Church, 6000 38th Ave. N.

Bright future cut short for a Dixie Hollins junior Hayleigh Mercurio 11/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 9:44pm]
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