PEKIN - An autopsy revealed that an undiagnosed medical condition likely caused the death of a 17-year-old senior who is the seventh student to die since classes began last fall at the 2,100-student high school in this Central Illinois town, officials said Thursday.
Classmates say Hanna Holder's sudden death after collapsing in a school hallway Wednesday touched off a new wave of mourning in this city of about 33,000 people, south of Peoria. Five students died in car and dirt bike accidents last fall, and another died of leukemia in December.
"We're not necessarily paranoid, but it's unbelievable how many students we've lost this year," said Kelsey Vandyke, a junior at Pekin Community High School.
Friends say Holder, an honor student and Scholastic Bowl team member, had complained of occasional dizziness about a month ago, but blood tests showed no cause. She also complained about shortness of breath for about a week before collapsing.
Tazewell County Coroner Dennis Conover called Thursday's autopsy findings preliminary and said the exact cause of Holder's death won't be known until further tests are completed in about two weeks.
"Losing so many young people in such a short period of time is very, very unusual in a county our size. I think it would be unusual in a county of any size," Conover said.
School officials say the rash of tragedies have handed students a heavy dose of life's toughest lesson - dealing with death.
"You don't ever get used to it. … It's a learning process that, unfortunately, our kids have had to face a lot sooner than their peers in other schools," superintendent Paula Davis said.
School officials are providing counseling and say students are also coping by writing messages to Holder on a large poster hung in a school hallway. They also held a candlelight vigil in her honor the night she died.
Illinois State University psychology professor Dan Graybill said letting kids talk is the best therapy to help them through the string of tragedies.
"The more contact with the adult world the better. All of them are thinking about this a lot even if they aren't talking about it. My advice to adults it to just listen rather than trying to give life lessons," Graybill said.
Friends say they are comforted their memories of Holder, who was picked by classmates as having the "best laugh" in voting for the school's upcoming yearbook.
"I don't think she would want us to be sad," senior Ashlee Sharp said. "She would definitely try to cheer us up."
Conover said school officials and students have been "spectacular," supporting each other through recurring tragedies that began in September when three sophomores died in a single-car crash.
"I hate to say that after so many deaths everyone knows what to do, but that in essence is what is going on, I think," Conover said.