Sydney McKeever, in many ways, is your average teenager.
The 17-year-old, with a bubbly personality, is dedicated to school, loves going to concerts and spends free time with her friends.
But in other ways, “average” doesn’t begin to cover it:
Despite not yet being old enough to vote, the Long Beach resident and Poly High senior is already a published cookbook author and has survived a nearly fatal health crisis. All within the past year.
And now, McKeever, the author of “The Vegetarian Cookbook for People Who Don’t Like Vegetables,” is dedicated to spreading awareness of what she went through and bringing comfort to others in the Long Beach area going through similar experiences.
In March 2021, McKeever started feeling sick, experiencing unrelenting and excruciating headaches and vomiting. She said she believed it was a horrible case of food poisoning.
“I remember the first time I went to the hospital,” she said, “I was really confused.”
After several visits to the Long Beach Memorial Medical Center emergency room, McKeever finally learned that she had a brain hemorrhage near the eloquent area of her brain – the part responsible for learning, working memory and speech.
When the doctors first told her about the brain hemorrhage, it didn’t seem real, she said. But once she understood, McKeever said, she couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened.
Although the hemorrhage did some damage to the tissue in her brain and impacted her verbal memory, she has so far been spared potentially devastating impacts on her life.
While feeling extremely fortunate, the joy McKeever felt was shortlived.
McKeever was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation, a rare, life-threatening condition that happens when a group of blood vessels in the body form incorrectly, which happens during development before birth or shortly after. AVMs that form in the brain or close to the spinal cord are most likely to have long-term effects, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“Whenever I told my friends,” McKeever said, “I’d say there’s just been this clump of abnormal cells that’s been like a ticking time bomb since I was born.”
McKeever’s particular AVM connected to two blood vessels, one of which goes to the hippocampus – meaning any additional hemorrhage put her speech and learning abilities directly at risk.
Soon after the discovery, McKeever and her parents, Brian and Xanath, looked for viable treatments.
There were two: She could have either open brain surgery to remove the AVM, which carried the risk of brain damage; or radiation surgery, which would leave her unprotected from a possibly-fatal brain hemorrhage during the more-than-one-year-long period it would take to eradicate the AVM, McKeever said.
“The process to decide between those took a really long time,” she said.
Finally, the family decided that brain surgery would be the treatment McKeever would undergo.
But surprisingly, the AVM had disappeared — albeit temporarily. After a checkup months later, the AVM was back, but the best course ended up being radiosurgery.
Despite the health crisis, McKeever said, she found comfort in those around her: friends, family and even doctors.
One of her favorite memories, she said, came before her first radiosurgery in December at the UC San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital. Her friends made a video wishing her luck, saying that they missed her and hoped she was doing well.
“They gave it to me right before my surgery,” McKeever said, “and that was completely amazing.”
Her experience with AVM, McKeever said, has given her a new perspective on her everyday life.
“I would say it’s made me take a lot more stock in the everyday things,” she said. “Just making sure that I’m making the most out of the time that I have and have experiences that I’m going to remember.”
McKeever struggled to find distractions and comfort while undergoing treatment. For the first few months, she said, nothing did. But eventually, McKeever said, she found something – cooking.
“I had nothing but time because my teachers were not giving me work then, so I just found cooking was something that I could do that wasn’t strenuous,” McKeever said. “It provided a nice escape from always thinking about what was going to happen next; instead, I could get lost in chopping garlic.”
McKeever has always enjoyed cooking. She developed a true passion for it during the coronavirus pandemic and then again during the scariest days of her treatment.
Whether it was creating vegan options for her father or rich pasta dishes for her mother and older brother, Ian, cooking settled her and allowed her to explore her curiosity.
“It was just so fun being able to figure out how to make all these different substitutes (for vegetarian dishes),” she said, “either for things that I had experimented with making or with ingredients I didn’t even know existed before. ”
Taking up cooking also allowed for a refreshing change from the hospital food she had during her procedures, McKeever said.
The vegetarian recipes that McKeever was creating for her father and writing down sparked an idea to make a cookbook.
After about five months of altering and perfecting recipes, she wrote “The Vegetarian Cookbook for People Who Don’t Like Vegetables,” which includes simple and easy recipes that feature a key vegetable ingredient that can be incorporated into other meals.
“It was a lot of changing recipes that I already knew of or finding a recipe that I liked and adjusting it until it was my own,” she said, “or adding things to recipes that I found online and changing them until they were completely different over a long period of time.”
The cookbook was published in April and features many recipes that McKeever and her family enjoy, such as red lentil soup, cashew alfredo pasta, and ramen with tofu and broccolini.
McKeever said she’s donating the profits from the cookbook to the Joe Niekro Foundation, a nonprofit that is dedicated to supporting AVM patients and their families. McKeever chose the foundation because it brought a lot of comfort to McKeever and her family while they were learning more about AVMs.
Along with sharing recipes in her cookbook, though, McKeever also wanted to spread more awareness about AVMs. So the teen is working on creating a website for the Long Beach area to share AVM definitions, various resources — such as medical providers that treat AVMs — and other clinical research that she and her mother have compiled. She will also include survival stories.
“I’m most excited about the survivor stories,” McKeever said. “Right now, I have mine first, but I’m excited to fill it up with more people who have gone through AVMs.
“I’m excited to see how other people feel helped by (the website),” she added. “The greatest source of comfort for my parents was these websites, so I’m excited to really see how it can help other people.”
McKeever said she still lives with the fear of a brain hemorrhage every day. She still has several more months of treatment ahead of her.
But she can now she the finish line. McKeever said she counts each day as a blessing—and as a step closer to overcoming the AVM.
Even after she fully recovers, though, the memory of facing death will remain, she said. As will the lessons she learned from the ordeal.
“Find your friends and spend a lot of time with them,” McKeever said. “Also take a lot of value in your family. My parents and my brother were amazing.
“Definitely find people who matter,” she added, “and spend as much time with them as you can.”
McKeever said she has also learned to not stress too much about school work and enjoy her time in high school.
Still, she will apply to Ivy League universities this fall, including Harvard, as well as West Coast universities such as Stanford, UCLA and Berkley. She wants to pursue a major in neuroscience or biology with a minor in English, McKeever said.
As for her cookbook, McKeever said she hopes people discover the joy of cooking for those they love.
“I really want people to take comfort in these recipes,” she said. “And they’re easy to make.”
“The Vegetarian Cookbook for People Who Don’t Like Vegetables” is available for purchase on amazon.com.