“You can hold my hand.” A simple gesture of kindness and compassion, as well as just five little words is what carried me through some of the scariest moments of my life. I remember holding my parents’ hand when I was finally given a diagnosis after years of them questioning the doctors about symptoms. I remember holding my grandmother’s hand when I was told that the boy I had befriended at the hospital might not make it. I remember holding my mom’s hand for what felt like a million needle sticks and again when she let me be a “kid” and dropped me off at Victory Junction Camp (a camp for children with chronic diseases).

I was diagnosed with Immuno-Thrombocytopenia Purpura (ITP), at the age of 7. At the time I was diagnosed, I had 32 bruises that covered my body that had no known origin, including bruises all over my feet from wearing a new pair of shoes. While my parents were relieved to finally have some answers, it also brought many new questions and new ways of life. At the time of diagnosis, I was just beginning my path on a competitive gymnastics team as well as a dance team. I was completely devastated when the doctor told me that I had to suspend my gymnastics training, and while I could compete in dance, it had limitations as well. I remember having to sit out on the weekly games of dodgeball at school because it was deemed too risky. I remember my parents being told that we had to take down the trampoline and that I shouldn’t go to the new trampoline parks with all my friends. Life quickly changed from dance classes to bi-weekly visits to the hematology/oncology group for labs and treatments. It was during these visits that I began to recognize and make friends with the other patients. Each time I was in that waiting room, I was in awe of the other children, as they were all going through treatment and most were dealing with very visible side effects but still seemed to smile. Later, I found out that the boy I had met at the hospital did recover, and I remember smiling, feeling grateful for him, and in that moment, I had an overwhelming sense of drive to ensure that many other children were able to recover.

As time passed, I realized the privilege I had to be able to grow up surrounded by a beautiful community of hematologists, oncologists, genetic researchers, and nurses. Knowledge is best gained through active participation and experience, and when you grow up in doctors’ offices, you learn a thing or two. Throughout my high school academic career, it became apparent that my strong suit was focused on all aspects of science, which is exemplified through my biology and college level science coursework as well as my involvement in health/science-related clubs like HOSA. It also led me to becoming chosen to be a Teen Board Leader for a local non-profit, Strong Like AK, created in memory of a pediatric cancer patient. Through this foundation, we raise awareness, money, and support for childhood cancer families, and it has truly opened my eyes even wider to what is needed in research. It has amazed me and inspired me as to what research can accomplish, even on a regional level.

My ultimate goal is to continue to gain as much knowledge as I can so that I can help others the way my specialized doctors and nurses helped me. This goal, as well as the very winding path that my diagnosis put me on, led me to my intended major in college, biology, with a concentration in genetic research. Those days in the waiting room sparked a curiosity as to what caused their illnesses and if there was something that could be done to prevent them. Being able to listen to and interact with these children brought a fascination to the wonders of medical tests, the heartache of disease, and the role that genetics plays in their diagnosis and subsequent treatment. I became focused on learning about how a disease can be integrated by both environmental and genetic factors. Being diagnosed with ITP at a young age, with all the challenges and hurdles it brought, was not ideal or wanted, but I can truly say I am grateful for the passion, drive, and sense of compassion that it has instilled in me. It also made me realize how having empathy can spark a major change in one’s lifestyle, and how important small acts of kindness are needed, even if it’s as small as offering to hold someone’s hand for that sense of security. I look forward to being able to answer questions for these families, and to squeeze their hand.