Against the odds: Student overcomes challenges on road to commencement

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December 7, 2017

Wayne State graduating senior Jillian L. Weiss' battle of her life began in January 2008. A high school freshman from Temperance, Michigan, Weiss was enjoying competing in the sport she loved — soccer — and excelling academically with straight A’s.

Then, without warning, she came down with a mono-like virus that negatively affected her autonomic system. Part of the nervous system, the autonomic nervous system acts as a control system regulating the function of internal organs such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, lungs, kidneys, vision and other critical areas. 

“I was doing conditioning for soccer in the spring and I thought, ‘It’s my freshman year and conditioning for soccer must be really difficult.’ It lasted for a couple of weeks and we thought it must be more than just the conditioning,” Weiss said.

Following more than two months of diagnostic tests and seeking medical advice, a family friend suggested that Weiss participate in a tilt-table test to determine if she had Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, known as POTS. The tilt-table test involves lying on a table that can be tilted to an angle of 60 to 70 degrees while the patient’s blood pressure and heart rate are recorded. The test ends if the patient’s blood pressure becomes too low. Weiss passed out during the test, confirming the POTS diagnosis.

Dealing with POTS required Weiss to stay at home and fight a strange disorder that caused debilitating fatigue, migraines, dizziness and severe abdominal pain. She was able to complete the remainder of her freshman year by attending about three days each week, but her condition worsened during the summer, requiring her to remain homebound throughout the sophomore year.

Some relief finally arrived in the spring of 2009, when Dr. Blair Grubb, a world-renowned specialist of POTS, made some changes to Weiss’ numerous medications. She was able to complete a partial class load as a homebound sophomore with the help of a school-supplied tutor. During her final three years, Weiss had a reduced class load and a great deal of medical attention, enabling her to graduate from Bedford High School in 2012.

Shortly after graduation, Weiss enrolled at Wayne State, embarking on a five-and-a-half year journey that included her 24/7 battle against POTS and its devastating symptoms. Undeterred, she declared her major in kinesiology, served as a student ambassador for the College of Education, and even participated in intramural softball. In a few weeks, she will complete an internship at Henry Ford Health System in the Preventive Cardiology Department.

Another milestone for Weiss, 24, will occur on Dec. 12, when her family and friends watch her participate in commencement exercises at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. Among those cheering her on will be her father, Jeff, who is the senior associate athletic director for media relations at Wayne State; mother, Christy; and sister, Madison, a junior at the University of Indianapolis.

Next up after graduation?

“I’ll be studying for the MCATs from January through April, then applying to medical school in June, do the interview process, and then, hopefully, attend medical school," Weiss said. "Right now, the specialty that I’m interested in is cardiology, but I’m keeping an open mind if something else emerges.”

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