By Lexi Foldenauer
Here on Whatcom’s Campus, a student with a rare condition known as Chiari Malformation was chosen to be depicted in an episode of the popular television series “House.” The series is known for its outlandish main character, Dr. House, and for illustrating the treatment of patients with unusual and sometimes unheard of medical conditions.
Chiari Malformation is a result of structural defects in the cerebellum of the brain. There are three common types of the malformation, each with different symptoms. The most common of these symptoms are headaches, dizziness, vision problems, and even strokes. People suffering from the condition can usually take medications to subdue certain effects and will often have to undergo numerous procedures.
Laura Slyman, 21, recalls her parents acting very strange one day in January. She had received a phone call from the producers of “House”, informing her that they were interested in writing an episode about Chiari. Slyman’s neighbor had contacted the producer of the show, whom he knew personally, offering the idea for the episode.
“The whole process was really fast,” said Slyman. “There was definitely a lot of jumping up and down and screaming that day.”
Slyman’s family flew out to Los Angeles to tour the set this past February. At first, they were told that they might not meet the cast, because they couldn’t tour a set that was currently filming. Slyman, along with her family and best friend, were surprised to arrive on set where two actors from the show, along with extras, directors, and producers, were hanging out. She got to personally meet Olivia Wildes and Peter Jacobsen, who Slyman recalls were eating cake between takes.
“Peter is hilarious, and Olivia is super sweet!” Slyman said.
“Flying out there was just the icing on the cake,” she said.
The past five years has been a whirlwind for Slyman. She has experienced symptoms of Chiari all her life, but serious symptoms like passing out and major headaches increased around the time she was 14. Initially, doctors were hesitant to make the diagnosis, because the condition is so rare, and most denied the possibility that Slyman’s condition could be Chiari. She was put on a pacemaker and about a year and a half after using the device, traveled to New York to see a top specialist who could give her a proper diagnosis.
“I went from being a 4.0 student to being basically bed-ridden,” said Slyman.
It has been a difficult journey, but Slyman keeps a positive attitude toward life and her personal goals of becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon.
“It’s difficult, because I love life, and I have so many things I want to do.”
This past summer, Slyman completed the nursing program at BTC, and is now a certified nursing assistant. She got to watch a Chiari brain surgery be performed her senior year of high school, and said it was a great experience. Slyman hopes to become a lab technician in the near future.
“If I didn’t have that goal, I wouldn’t feel the need to fight through this,” said Slyman.
Since Chiari is such a rare condition, information has only recently become more known to doctors and the public. Support groups and funding for research has began to increase, and a case was discussed recently on an episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”. About .04 to .06 percent of the U.S. population lives with the condition, which is usually a congenital issue, said Slyman. Of that percentage, patients have about a 12 percent chance of passing it on to their children.
“It’s affected everything at one point or another,” said Slyman.
Slyman said she understands that she will always have pain, and doesn’t know how the condition will effect her years from now, but has accepted that fact. Living with the condition has made Slyman a more spiritual person, she said. Slyman attends physical therapy about 1-2 times a week for over 4 years. She has maintained a close relationship with the people at her physical therapy program, as well as the doctor she sees regularly.
Slyman started a non-profit group called “Hope for Chiari” back in New York when she received treatment. The focus of the group is to provide help and support to primarily children and families dealing with the condition. Support comes in the form of care packages, or Slyman helping to calm down a child in severe pain before undergoing a procedure. Donations can be made to the group by contacting Slyman via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“This ‘House’ thing has kind of reminded me of my purpose,” said Slyman. She has experienced a few major obstacles with her condition that made her temporarily step back from a lot of things in her life. Slyman said that the experience with the show helped her to regain her voice, and continue to advocate awareness for Chiari Malformation and those dealing with it. The show was a good opportunity to show support for all people living with the condition, not just her own case, said Slyman.
“I’m trying to give our voice as a whole.”