At first, the Braatens were just worried about Mackenzie running a high fever with no other symptoms. It was only when doctors gave the 7-year-old a chest X-ray, trying to rule out pneumonia, that anyone suspected anything more serious.
"Her whole spine was so curved that they couldn't see her left lung," mother Chenoa Braaten said. "We never noticed her back. She has perfect posture."
Mackenzie was diagnosed with scoliosis, but there was something more: fluid-filled sacs along her spine.
The lower part of Mackenzie's brain was extending into the upper neck region of her spinal cord, which is known as a Chiari malformation. In turn, this caused spinal fluid to push its way into the cord, creating cavities known as syrinxes, a disorder known as syringomyella. The pressure on the cord can cause migraines, vision problems and even paralysis.
"If she would, like, go out and play with her cousins, she'd get major headaches," Chenoa Braaten said.
Now 8 years old, Mackenzie had to miss the last month of 1st grade at Mesquite Trails Elementary School last year for emergency surgery to relieve some of the pressure on her spinal cord.
"I didn't cry because I saw a lot of happy things at the hospital," Mackenzie said, especially spending time with therapy dogs. Her parents shed lots of tears, though, including her father, San Bernardino County Sheriff Sgt. Joe Braaten.
Since then, Mackenzie has had to wear a hard plastic back brace — and at times endure the ridicule of other children. She will also need major spinal surgery to correct the scoliosis when she's 11.
"She'll have this for the rest of her life," Chenoa Braaten said. "She'll have MRIs, the syrinx could come back, the Chiari (malformation) could come back."
What frustrates Braaten, though, is that although Chiari malformations and syringomyella afflict as many people as multiple sclerosis, the disorders are much less known, even among doctors and specialists.
To help change things, Braaten is working with the American Syringomyelia and Chiari Alliance Project and trying to raise awareness of the condition among Californians and medical professionals.
"Every time I put the brace on her, I want to cry," Braaten said, tearing up. "I just want her to live a normal life."
On Friday, the High Desert Sales Divas, a group of direct sales representatives, will donate 25 percent of all proceeds from a Quarter Mania event at Maverick Stadium to the American Syringomyelia and Chiari Alliance Project.
For more information on Chiari malformations and syringomyelia, visit ASAP.org or write Braaten at email@example.com.