After a brain tumor halted her dream of dancing at the collegiate level, interdisciplinary studies major Brooke Kotrla has returned to Texas Tech to finish the degree she started in 2015.
Looking at photos of Texas Tech University student Brooke Kotrla during her freshman year, it's easy to see many similarities to her recent photos, three years later. Though the background and outfits may change, bits of red and black are in almost every picture, and many times, she's surrounded by her Texas Tech University Pom Squad teammates. In every picture, there's one constant that stands out among everything else – her smile.
Those who know the junior interdisciplinary studies major say that's no surprise. Brooke is known for her ability to brighten a room just by walking in.
“She is such a fun person, very funny and light-hearted with a quirky sense of humor,” said Stephanie Rhode, Texas Tech Spirit Program director. “She is always the one who makes everyone else laugh. She's one of those people you just want to be around all the time – people just gravitate toward her.”
These are traits Brooke has held on to, even after undergoing massive brain surgery last year to remove a grade II astrocytoma tumor that had taken over much of the left part of her brain. Now, almost a year after being diagnosed, she has resumed work on her degree through Texas Tech's distance learning program while completing a treatment plan that has included proton radiation and several rounds of chemotherapy.
“I have always admired that she has always lived life to the fullest, even before her diagnosis,” said Deanna Kotrla, Brooke's mother. “She never let negative things weigh her down before, and she doesn't now.”
Becoming a Red Raider
Brooke's introduction to Texas Tech began before she even set foot on campus as a freshman. A dancer since she was just 8 years old, Brooke said the Pom Squad was her main draw to the university.
“Since I was younger, I wanted to be on a collegiate competitive dance team that was highly ranked,” Brooke said. “Growing up, I did both classical and competitive dancing. Being a competitive person, I liked competitive dance more than classical and spent a lot of time researching competitive dance teams.”
During her senior year at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA), Brooke had a private coach help her prepare for tryouts and visited several universities to attend their dance clinics. She researched several schools and programs, looking specifically for a high-level dance program that was competitive at the national collegiate level. After attending the clinic at Texas Tech, it was her number one choice.
“I enjoyed the atmosphere and the school spirit,” Brooke said. “It took a lot of training and practice, but when I made the team, I knew Texas Tech was the school for me.”
Despite the fact that Brooke comes from a family of University of Texas graduates, including her parents, Deanna said they had visited the campus numerous times and had fallen in love with the campus, the academic offerings, the student support programs and the thriving school spirit and traditions. She said they were thrilled with Brooke's decision to become a Red Raider.
“It was a long-term dream come true for her, and us,” Deanna said. “Brooke has been dancing since she was a little girl and worked hard to be able to attend the High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston to study dance. Her dream has always been to dance in college, and to see her dream realized after so many years was surreal.”
Brooke graduated from HSPVA in 2015, and by the time she began classes at Texas Tech that fall, she already had become best friends with the rest of the squad, including Lauren Lund, a nutritional sciences major from Omaha, Nebraska.
Lund had received a message from Brooke in November 2014 via a Facebook page for incoming students. Seeing that Lund was also a dancer, Brooke asked if she also was trying out for the dance team, and if she wanted to be roommates. The two met at tryouts in May and instantly bonded. Brooke would be the one who told Lund they both had made the squad.
“We were both in Lubbock waiting for the results,” Lund recalls. “She looked at the page, called me and said, ‘We made it!' We were both crying.”
A year of dance
The two dancers spent the following year living together in Horn/Knapp Hall and bonding on and off the field. Though Brooke made more friends within the School of Theatre & Dance as a dance major, the Pom Squad became the main focus of her life that year.
“The program is highly competitive, so to be chosen was such an honor, and being a part of a team that is so close-knit was amazing,” Brooke said. “The coaches push you further than you ever thought you could go. I became the best dancer I could be at Texas Tech.”
Lund didn't have her own car at the time, so Brooke would drive anywhere and everywhere. In the mornings, when they had to be up at 5:30 a.m. for practice, they'd listen to Beyoncé and pump each other up on their way to join the rest of the team.
“She is the most hilarious, warm-hearted person you will ever meet,” Lund said. “I thought I was very lucky to be placed with her from the start. Who would have thought we would have met on Facebook, then be living and dancing together?”
Lund and Brooke were the fastest runners on the team, and once on the field, they'd race each other and the other members. It was just one way of pushing everyone to be their absolute best.
“Brooke was obsessed with being part of the Spirit Program,” Rhode said. “She knew being on the squad was very intense and a lot of work. Sometimes people don't realize that, but she did her research and came here to give 100 percent. She was a delight to have around.”
Their first break that semester came during Thanksgiving. Lund couldn't make it home to Omaha, so she traveled with Brooke home to the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. In December, when the Red Raiders played in the 2015 Texas Bowl against Louisiana State University, the Pom Squad traveled to Houston for the game, and the Kotrlas welcomed Lund into their home again.
“They treated me like I was their own daughter,” Lund said.
In spring 2016, the Pom Squad was training for the National Dance Association Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championship in April in Daytona Beach. Though Brooke had already started feeling unwell, she made it to the competition and the team's hard work paid off.
“We were really excited to get second place,” Lund recalls. “We had a lot of fun together that year, especially during nationals.”
A difficult decision, and a diagnosis
After nationals, though Brooke's health continued to be a cause for concern, she was an invaluable member of the squad. She remained dedicated to the Spirit Program, despite missing several practices because of headaches and feeling poorly.
“She was totally devoted to being a member of the program, but toward the end of the year, she changed,” Rhode said. “Still, you don't think it's going to be anything bad. Everyone has headaches.”
As the headaches continued and Brooke began sleeping much more than usual, she made a difficult decision – she would leave the squad. That fall, she transferred to Texas State University for her sophomore year. Her brother, Blake, was a senior at the university, and it also was closer to home.
More symptoms followed. In addition to headaches and fatigue, Brooke was now having strange vision problems, neck pain and numbness in her arms and throat. A trip to an optometrist at the end of May 2017 provided the first hint that something was very wrong.
Though there were no problems with Brooke's vision, the doctor noticed her optic nerves were swollen and set a follow-up appointment with a neurologist. Before she could see the neurologist, an emergency room MRI revealed the cause of all of her symptoms: a mass covering the left side of her brain.
Her official diagnosis was a grade II astrocytoma brain tumor.
“When we first received her diagnosis I would be lying to say that it wasn't devastating,” Deanna said. “We struggled with so much grief and fear early on. I was in shock that my 20-year-old daughter had such a large brain tumor that no one knew had been growing for potentially up to 10 years or more.”
For Brooke, the shock was accompanied by a completely different emotion.
“I wasn't feeling good for almost a year and a half,” Brooke said. “I never knew why I felt so strange sometimes. I felt relief because I finally knew why I felt so odd.”
Within a week, Brooke was at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston undergoing an awake craniotomy. This type of brain surgery allows the patient to be awake so the surgeon may monitor how the procedure is affecting critical areas of the brain, like those that control speech and motor skills.
Deanna said Brooke emerged from the surgery with no lasting mental or physical deficits.
“One thing that stands out to me is that it was like God had already created a path for Brooke's care and healing,” Deanna said. “The idea that this was not a surprise to Him kept ringing true to us during that time. Every urgent need we had was met almost immediately at just the right time with extraordinary provision. It truly was miraculous and continues to be to this day.
“She had some extreme complications during her surgery, and even weeks after, we had other doctors tell us that there was no other neurosurgeon in the world who could have accomplished what Dr. Frederick Lang did in that exact situation. It's been truly remarkable and humbling.”
After recovering from the surgery, Brooke's treatment continued with six weeks of proton radiation therapy, which has been followed by a year of chemotherapy. Deanna and Brooke said the support of friends and family, including those at Texas Tech, has helped get them through what has been one of the hardest experiences of their lives.
“We had so many friends and family support us through that difficult time. I am not sure how we would have survived otherwise,” Deanna said. “The continued support and love Brooke has received from the Texas Tech Spirit family has been such a gift. We are so thankful for them and their support of her and our family.”
Brooke said despite her diagnosis, she's confident in her ability to continue fighting.
“Cancer is obviously a scary thing to deal with, and even today, I am still coming to terms with my diagnosis,” Brooke said. “But my body is still strong and is handling the treatment very well. I know I am strong enough to overcome this, no matter how long it takes.”
That determination serves as an inspiration for Lund, who still serves on the Pom Squad. Last year, when Lund found out she had a stress fracture that would keep her out of practice for six months, she said Brooke is the one who got her through the ordeal.
“She's such a warrior,” Lund said “She's just incredible, and she's relentless.”
Preparing for the future
When she received her diagnosis, Brooke admits she thought, “Why even finish school?” But her family and doctors made her realize she still has a lengthy future ahead of her.
She decided to look for an online degree program that would allow her to continue receiving treatment while completing her degree. Her research led her back to Texas Tech.
“We looked at a few other online programs but were not very impressed with their offerings or support for their students,” Deanna said. “Again, Texas Tech rose to the top of the list. We couldn't be more thankful for the fantastic distance learning program. The support she has received from her adviser to navigate her situation and the classes she needs has been exceptional.”
Brooke is now a junior interdisciplinary studies major focusing on communication, nutrition and family studies. Though taking classes online is not the typical college experience, she said she loves the degree plan.
“There is nothing wrong with distance learning,” Brooke said. “It is perfect for someone with a different schedule that doesn't work with an in-person environment. I plan out what needs to be done each week, and I schedule when I will do it in my own time.”
In this, too, Lund finds inspiration.
“She has to manage her time really well because she can't really work on school assignments
when she is completing a round of chemotherapy,” Lund said. “I'm really thankful to
have her as a role model in my life.”
Deanna said she knows Brooke's positive attitude, along with her strength of character, faith and resilience, will see her through whatever else comes her way.
“She has always been an extraordinary person, since she was a little girl,” Deanna said. “She certainly never fit in a mold, and she was a fun kid, but also very strong-willed. It takes a very dedicated and disciplined person to follow their childhood dreams for years to get to a college-level program.”
Brooke anticipates completing her degree in 2020. Though that's a little longer than she originally expected, she said she is thankful for all that has come with being a Red Raider.
“I have so many great memories from my first year as a Pom Squad member and being on the field, cheering for the Red Raiders in the Jones,” Brooke said. “The friendships I've made and the education I have received from Texas Tech have been some of the best experiences in my life.
“As I finish my degree, I can honestly say I don't know exactly what I want to do, but I really want to get a job where I can be a positive influence on others. It could be fitness, dance or health-related. We'll see what kind of doors open for me in the future.”