The fainting episodes started near the end of Morgan Centeno’s junior year at Riverview High School. Over a two-month period the active teen fainted more than 250 times and was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS).
The condition, which causes a rapid increase in heart rate with a decrease in blood pressure, caused Morgan to experience severe dizziness and sometimes briefly lose consciousness.
“It was scary because I didn’t know when it was going to happen, and everyone around me freaked out,” she says.
When the fainting episodes began, the energetic, diligent student was deeply immersed in many activities, all while keeping up with rigorous International Baccalaureate classes.
“I didn’t have time for POTS,” Morgan says.
As a sophomore, Morgan took a job at Publix, working 25-38 hours a week.
“At first, it was just an after-school job, but I discovered that I loved the relationships with my coworkers, and it definitely helped me hone my people and time management skills,” she says.
Morgan needed those finely tuned time management skills to juggle her numerous commitments. She was president of the National Honor English Club, served on the Student Council, played on the RHS volleyball team, volunteered at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, and often helped her single mom by making dinner and transporting her younger brother.
But in April 2021, POTS changed her life, making it impossible to get out of bed some days.
“I couldn’t shower, brush my teeth, play volleyball, or climb up the stairs. It seemed that everything I loved in life was taken from me. It was hard,” Morgan says.
After a trying period of doctors’ appointments, extensive medical tests, and expensive medication trials, an experimental medication was found that improved her quality of life and significantly decreased the fainting episodes.
“At the end, I am grateful because it has given me a broader perspective of life. I learned to appreciate seemingly small, basic things, like being able to walk to the mailbox without passing out.”
Morgan went back to work, resumed many of her activities, and is finishing her senior year with a 4.2 GPA in honors classes.
During the worst of her ordeal, Morgan didn’t complain, and outwardly she maintained her customary self-discipline and motivation. But the pressure built, and fortunately, she recognized when she needed help.
“Looking back, I honestly don’t know how I got through the first months of having POTS,” she says. “It was overwhelming, and eventually I realized I couldn’t do it all by myself. I turned to my RHS counselor and my mom, and they guided me to a therapist who helped me reprioritize and keep a positive mindset.”
Carla Harding was the school counselor whose open door and ready shoulder helped Morgan through rough days.
“Since POTS is an ‘invisible’ illness, and Morgan always smiles and tends to put others before herself, many people aren’t aware of how dramatically and suddenly her life changed and how diligently she worked to maintain her grades and honor her commitments,” says Harding.
POTS has made Morgan more mindful of others who cope with “invisible” illnesses.
“We need to be careful not to judge people by appearances and make an effort to be kinder to one another because we don’t know what another person is going through,” Morgan says.
The focused, goal-oriented teen has learned to incorporate more downtime in her life. She likes to play the guitar and ukulele, listen to Harry Styles, visit the beach at sunset, and go to cycling class.
“I still faint, but not as frequently. I work on staying calm and continue to take my medication,” Morgan says.
Her goal to be a dentist was inspired by her own experience and research she undertook in school.
“I got a big boost of self-esteem when the braces I wore for four years came off,” she says. “So, for my IB essay I looked at how psychology and dentistry overlap.
“A lot of people won’t smile because they’re embarrassed by their teeth, and that decreases their serotonin levels. As a dentist, I can help improve their self-esteem and psychological health,” she says.
Morgan has been accepted into several top dental schools and has decided on the University of Alabama at Birmingham, rated the nation’s No. 2 dental school.
Advice to entering freshmen: Don’t stress yourself out by worrying about the little things. Do your part and everything will work out.
This series showcases Sarasota County public high school seniors selected as STRIVE award honorees for demonstrating grit and resilience to overcome obstacles and substantially improve their lives. These stories are presented to celebrate STRIVE students and to inspire and remind us all that it is worthwhile to continue striving to succeed when life delivers harsh and unexpected experiences.
The STRIVE Awards recognition is presented by the Education Foundation of Sarasota County and made possible by the H. Jack Hunkele Charitable Foundation and other generous donors. More information is available at edfoundationsrq.org/strive-awards/.