(CNN)As a self-proclaimed "princess," Shantell "Shannie" Pooser is comfortable in the spotlight.
This brave teen with Down syndrome is taking to the sky as a flight attendant despite a bleak prognosis
But instead of a tiara or a ballgown, this 17-year-old prefers a pair of silver wings and a crisp, navy blue flight attendant's uniform.
Pooser is American Airlines' first honorary flight attendant with Down syndrome.
Since pinning on those wings and posting about her first flight on Facebook, she has become a symbol of hope for her community.
"People recognize her and want to take selfies," Pooser's mother, Deanna Miller-Berry, tells CNN. "She loves it!"
The airline honored Pooser with the role on her 17th birthday -- a milestone doctors did not expect her to see. In addition to Down syndrome, Pooser was born with a rare, degenerative airway condition that hinders her breathing. Her physicians say it's terminal.
The teen developed a love of flying during trips between her South Carolina home and Ohio. She often travels to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center to receive lifesaving care.
To date, Pooser has undergone 30 surgeries. Her family says they spent more than $30,000 out of pocket for Pooser's medical care between 2015 and 2018.
One day, as Pooser and her mom made the trek from Cincinnati to South Carolina, the teen bonded with a flight attendant who gave her a pair of wings. On that trip, Miller-Berry noticed her daughter paying extra attention to the flight attendants' instructions. She even started imitating them from her seat. When the safety briefing ended, she looked at her mom and said "So, how did I do?"
After the flight, Pooser met the pilot and toured the cockpit. That VIP experience sparked a new life goal: to become a flight attendant. "Planes became her obsession," her mom explains.
Four months before her daughter's 17th birthday, Miller-Berry decided to throw her daughter an airline-themed party.
The mother of five reached out to American Airlines, hoping to receive a few lanyards to complete the DIY projects she planned for her daughter's party. But instead, the airline threw the teen an extravagant once-in-a-lifetime birthday bash, including the use of a CRJ-900 plane to host her party.
"The first-class section was filled with her special needs friends from school," Miller-Berry said. All of Pooser's friends and family were on board. Pooser also received a special visit from Columbia, South Carolina Mayor Steve Benjamin and a medallion to her city.
"Every flight we have been on since her birthday she has been in uniform and worked," Miller-Berry says.
Although recognized by her passengers for her infectious personality and signature shimmy pose, Pooser's mom says that behind her daughter's bright smile is a heart-wrenching health history. Miller-Berry says her daughter was initially misdiagnosed with asthma and sleep apnea. "We were waking up at night to a blue baby -- paramedics were always on standby," Pooser's mom said.
After years of frantic searching, they found hope at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, one of three specialized medical centers that agreed to review Pooser's case.
"I sent her files to 42 hospitals across the country. Three responded," Miller-Berry says.
But the specialized health care was costly. Even with her daughter's insurance, the family still didn't have enough. Miller-Berry, a disabled veteran, says she and her husband have sold everything possible to afford her daughter's health care needs. In 2015, when Pooser's insurance initially denied payment for a life-saving surgery, the family went into overdrive to raise the funds.
"We sold our truck. We cut cable and got the TVs with the big backs on them and watched VHS tapes," Miller-Berry said. "I cut all my hair off so I didn't have to pay to get it done."
Miller-Berry says she was desperate to save her daughter, and that she considered taking her own life so her family would gain access to a million dollar life insurance payout. She went so far as to write letters to her church and family members, first