Student solves her own medical mystery
May 22, 2009 · Updated 10:22 AM
A high school project to study and report on different tissue diseases became a lot more than a quest for a good grade when one student found the answer to a question that had puzzled her doctors for years.
Eastside Catholic High School senior Jessica Terry was diagnosed as a child with an indeterminable case of either Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, but after hours of studying her own tissue samples, she found the answer; a granuloma, or a mass of cells, that signified Crohn's.
Crohn's is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack the gastrointestinal tract, which leads to inflammation anywhere from the esophagus to the colon, though the most commonly affected part is the small intestine. It causes diarrhea, weight loss, and abdominal pain, among others, and can lead to anemia, nutritional problems, inflammation of tissues, and a host of other problems.
"This is something that pathologists had already done for her, had already tested for, and they didn't see it," said Mary Margaret Welch, instructor for Eastside Catholic's BioMedical course. "It's such a remarkable project."
The BioMedical course is a hallmark of Eastside Catholic and the only high school program like it in the state, Welch said. It's a hybrid of theology and Advanced Placement biology, and student responsibilities range from ethics discussions to lab experiments.
Terry's conclusion came from a histology project, which is the study of tissues, and one of the major focuses of the class. Students were given the chance to choose a disease that interested them, and along with partners, examine tissue samples and write a 100-page paper on their findings.
For Terry, there was no question about which disease to research.
"Crohn's was definitely the first thought I had," she said. "Not knowing much about a disease you're growing up with is not only nerve-wracking, but it's confusing. We talked about the digestive system for only a couple of weeks, but I was really stuck on it and wanted to learn more."
Terry and her teammates began with the basics: what is the disease, where does it form, how do you treat it, and more.
After the basic research, the students took animal tissue samples and examined them for any abnormalities.
"It was really neat, getting to cut our own tissues, make our own slides, and put them through the process that actual labs do," Terry said.
Students took the water out of the cells, re-embedded them with wax, put them on a microscope slide, stained them and examined them — lessons generally far beyond the high school years.
"Nowhere else in the state do they do histology with high school students," Welch said. "When I learned this, I was in graduate school. It's great to get them ahead of the game, and be able to immerse them in this."
Once the sample slide had been examined, Terry and her groupmates were planning to google a picture of Crohn's Disease-infected tissue to compare their sample to, until Terry realized the pathologist Welch had assigned them to for guidance worked at Children's Hospital — her hospital.
Terry was able to get her own tissue samples taken as a child, and after hours of searching, she found the granuloma.
"Jessica's project had taken another life," Welch said. "She's an amazing student, she had a relationship with the disease and wanted to know more. Her presentation blew the socks off of everyone in the class."
For Terry, the knowledge came with mixed emotions. Finally knowing was relieving, but also scary, she said.
She sent her findings to her doctors who confirmed her diagnosis. And though she is currently in remission, Terry said she's glad to know what to expect down the road.
Getting first-hand experience researching disease will be helpful in her future, too. Terry will be attending nursing school in California in the fall, and hopes to one day be a reconstructive surgeon for Doctors Without Borders.
"This has been the highlight of my high school career for sure," she said. "How many other kids across the nation get an experience like this? It's been amazing."