PARK HILLS, Ky. -- Headaches were just always a fact of life for Kylie Moellering.
The senior tennis player at Notre Dame Academy can remember playing soccer as a child and always getting really bad headaches from the back-and-forth sprinting. She would get them from playing tennis, too. She also had some ringing in her ears.
"I just thought that was normal," Moellering said. "No one ever told me otherwise and I didn't really talk about it."
She had no idea what Chiari malformation was and she certainly had no idea that she was born with it. But last fall, other symptoms started popping up as she was working her way back to the tennis court from shoulder surgery.
This fall, she is working her way back to the tennis court again -- this time from brain surgery to help relieve her Chiari symptoms. She reached the state doubles semifinals last spring with her partner Francie Case while battling her symptoms and has every intention of playing her senior year in a few months.
"She's a fighter in that way and she just loves the sport," Kylie's mom, Robin Moellering, said. "She just gets stronger and there is no reason why she could not play very competitively in the spring."
But her junior year was a battle for Kylie on the court, at home and at school. Around last October, the symptoms started piling up on her. She would get dizzy. The headaches would be so bad that she would get sick. Then her legs started going numb. Really numb. Ultimately, the leg numbness led to an MRI in November that showed the malformation. A second opinion from the Mayo Clinic confirmed it.
"They did a whole spinal scan and they saw that I had what's called Chiari I, which I'd never heard of before, and they said that it's congenital," Kylie said. "So I've always had it. When they started talking about the symptoms, a lot of them I've always had. As a kid, I never knew they were any different than anything else."
Chiari malformation is a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal, according to the Mayo Clinic website. It occurs when part of the skull is abnormally small or misshapen, pressing on the brain and forcing it downward. It's uncommon and Kylie's type of malformation -- type I -- develops as the skull and brain grow. So many of her symptoms didn't show up until last fall.
"It was terrifying," Kylie said. "I didn't know if I would ever have full feeling in my legs again. That was pretty terrifying. But my parents kept telling me that Children's Hospital is really good at everything they do and they would take care of me. They were so nice to me and so comforting all the time."
Knowing what the issue was, Kylie pressed on amid worsening symptoms. She would be walking to class when her legs would go numb.
"I would have to stop or I would have to look at my feet because I couldn't really feel them," Kylie said. "I would just know they were moving."
Kylie didn't want to tell anyone about what she was going through, but her parents emailed her counselors.
"Just at school, in general, they were so amazing for me," Kylie said.
Sometimes she would fall asleep right after school or practice. A few times, she fell asleep at her desk while doing homework and would have to tell her teachers she didn't get to some things the next day.
"My teachers were so understanding and they would work with me," Kylie said. "It was really just so awesome. My parents were so amazing and helped me through it. With all of it coming at once, it was pretty overwhelming."
She was still playing strong tennis, too. Sometimes she would get nauseous at practice, but she never complained.
"She just fought through it and just dealt with the pain she was having," Notre Dame tennis coach Lyndsey Maynard said. "Because (coach) Kara (Hussey) and I knew of her condition, we would make her slow down and take breaks, but she always wanted to keep going. We would tell her, 'Kylie, we do not want you to collapse on the court. Listen to your body.' She did not want whatever she was dealing with to get in her way. And it didn't."
Still, she was symptomatic enough to have surgery. At the beginning of tennis season, Kylie and her family decided to schedule the surgery for June 1 -- right after the state tennis tournament and school had ended.
"They said it was just going to get worse or not change at all," Kylie said. "And with how my legs were going, they would go numb and be really painful -- pins and needles and tingly."
Kylie's condition was not life-threatening. She just never felt as good as her friends out on the tennis court or in school and she knew she could feel better. But brain surgery was a big decision.
"It was a little overwhelming at first because, from my understanding, it was more of a quality-of-life decision rather than a life-threatening decision," Robin Moellering said. "This was brain surgery, so it was an important decision and nothing we went into lightly."
Kylie's surgery at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center lasted a few hours and she spent a night in the pediatric intensive care unit and five days at Children's overall. She has been working to get herself back to normal and back on the tennis court since.
Her condition is a structural issue, so it will never completely go away. But her mom said there are more good days now than bad. She hasn't had any leg numbness. She's gone biking a couple times without headaches. Energy for her normal workouts and practices still eludes her, but she has been playing a few days a week and is incrementally building herself back up.
"It feels amazing," Kylie said. "There was just a lot of unknowns going into it. I'm so thankful for everything that happened and that I was able to get the surgery and that everyone was so supportive. I'm really excited to see where it goes the rest of my senior year."
Don't be surprised to see her make a deep run at the state tennis tournament again in May.
"I know she will come back strong, because that's just the type of person she is," Maynard said. "It will be great to see her compete this season being pain free."
The Conquer Chiari Walk Across America takes place Sept. 17. It has been held the third week of September each year since 2008. Learn more here.