Students coping with disease excel on campus

Rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease are two serious medical problems that can be manageable at best and overpowering at worst.

Emily Hicks and Andrea Dmytrash are two University of Calgary students living beyond their medical conditions and leading exciting, busy lives.

The two students cope daily with a disease and both were recent recipients of this year’s UCB Pharma Canada scholarship which presents $5,000 to 16 deserving candidates across the country suffering from either RA or Crohn’s.

Crohn’s can trap healthy tissue between diseased areas in the gastrointestinal tract, cause rectal bleeding, diarrhea and weight loss. It is estimated that nearly 75 per cent of all Crohn’s patients will have surgery in their lifetime to deal with what medicine cannot.

Rheumatoid arthritis stems from the body’s immune system attacking healthy tissues, leading to swelling and joint pain that can cause permanent disability. Approximately 70 per cent of RA sufferers are women.

UCB scholarship recipients are individuals who provide evidence that they live above and beyond the boundaries of their health problems while displaying scholarly tenacity.

With aspirations of careers in medicine, both U of C ladies make sure their active social lives are balanced with academics.

Emily Hicks

Emily Hicks hopes to enter health-related research or medical school. She said her love of assisting others is the reason she attends university.

“My passion for helping people definitely plays a role in why I’m considering this pathway,” says Hicks.

Since her initial diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis at age 13, the health sciences student has consistently proved she controls her condition, not the reverse.

Hicks enjoys leading a busy life, and has six courses and an exhausting after-school schedule to prove it.

Hicks wasn’t sure what to think when initially told she had RA at such a young age.

“I didn’t really know a lot about it when I was first diagnosed,” said Hicks.

“There was a little bit of shock and I wasn’t really sure how it was going to impact the rest of my life.”

Despite not knowing how life would play out in the coming years, Hicks made sure she did everything she wanted to do and still keeps this as priority No. 1.

“I think my RA has given me a lot of motivation to achieve things, kind of prove myself,” says the upbeat 19-year-old.

The undaunted teen even competed at the Highland Dancing World Championships in Scotland last year.

“It was really exciting just to be part of such a huge event with so many people from across the world,” says Hicks, whose skills have allowed her to compete at the premier level with nearly 100 other participants.

Her laundry list of extra-curricular activities also includes tutoring high school students, starring in local theatre productions, playing the oboe and participating in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition.Â

Beginning last February, Hicks has been involved in many aspects of the project, including analyzing its ethical implications, web design and working on the wet lab portion of the project. Her academic acumen has allowed her to oversee the construction of a mutant protein genetic circuit used in testing their system.

In a few weeks she and fellow U of C teammates will head down to Ivy-league juggernaut Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a chance at iGEM glory.

“We’re just doing our last little bit of preparations,” says an excited Hicks.

The team’s project is a complex look into the world of quorum sensing using E. coli in a cell-to-cell communications system.

With a schedule leaving little room for free time, Hicks says compromises are necessary when juggling her various activities and an illness.

Despite her love for dancing, it can be a constant struggle. Stamina is a major problem and practicing for hours each day is not feasible, so she cross trains by swimming and biking.

Hicks says the RA scholarship will help her on the road to medical school.

“It’s really nice to have this year paid for,” says Hicks, adding it’s a relief not having to search for a job amidst her busy schedule.

Andrea Dmytrash

U of C graduate studies medical student Andrea Dmytrash has lived with Crohn’s disease for nearly 10 years, but makes the most of her time. Devoted to Crohn’s-related research, volunteering and awareness building, the hopeful doctor doesn’t allow her medical condition to hamper her.

“I’ve tried to let my disease affect me as little as possible,” says Dmytrash.

The 27-year-old takes an immunosuppressant each day and an IV infusion of infliximab every eight weeks and feels her disease is under control.

“My day-to-day living is very normal,” she says.

Dmytrash’s health concerns include abdominal pain, lack of appetite, fatigue, chills and rapid weight loss.

“These symptoms seem pretty vague and minor to an outsider, but I have to be vigilant about them because they indicate that I may have a stricture,” says Dmytrash, who has had three surgeries due to strictures since 1999.

A stricture is a narrowing of the small intestine that can eventually scar and prevent food from passing through.  

Dmytrash aims to use her education and experiences to help others and find sustainable solutions for this disease.

Growing up in Lamont, Alberta, and later Edmonton, Dmytrash was initially misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome at age 13.

By 17-years-old she had surgery to remove two feet of her small intestine.

She received her undergraduate degree in pharmacology and a Masters in Experimental Medicine — probiotics and prebiotics in a rat model of Crohn’s and Colitis — at the University of Alberta.

From the first time she had a taste of teaching, she called it a natural progression into medicine.

“What seemed so unattainable as an undergrad seem[s] so natural now.”

Following graduation she ran a nutritional trial for irritable bowel disease at the U of A. She now volunteers her time with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada and helps people suffering from the diseases, something she says has motivated her to become a doctor.

“I met the most amazing and inspiring people along the way. I really enjoyed helping them understand their disease better,” says Dmytrash.

When not volunteering her time, she can be found rowing, doing yoga, seeing friends, wall climbing, curling and even practicing a new musical hobby.

“I started playing the violin this past summer, but I fear I am still at the stage where I am the only person who enjoys the sounds coming out of it.”

This inventory of activity is not surprising for the graduate student, who mirrored such a schedule in her high school days on top of a part-time job, dancing, student council and yearbook duties.

When Dmytrash received notification that she had won the UCBeyond scholarship for the current academic year she was ecstatic.

“I was surprised and very excited to receive the award,” she said. 

“Tuition and living expenses add up very quickly and there are always extra costs associated [with] living with a chronic disease,” she says.

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