Posted at 2:48 p.m., Sept. 24, 2014

Strength, happiness and never-ending optimism

In digital photography class, she smiles brightly at the new editing techniques the instructor, J.L. O’Brien, is showing on the Smartboard. Enthusiastically, she asks questions about the history of photography and how it has changed throughout time. During a break in the lesson, she laughs along with the other students who are joking with the instructor about his age.

On days like these, Jessica Dawkins, a Laramie County Community College freshman, can feel like a normal 18-year-old attending college. For a few moments, she can focus on the image on her computer screen and how brightly she can make the colors pop… not of the doctor’s appointment scheduled in a few days or how her body might feel tomorrow or even in the next few hours.

She can just feel normal.

For the past six years, Dawkins has lived with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). It affects the autonomic nervous system, which is the system in the body that controls the heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and so forth.

For example, in a healthy person, when he stands up, his blood will pool in his feet because of gravity. The autonomic nervous system works by making the blood vessels push blood from the legs and back up to the heart. But, when a person has POTS, his body has trouble switching from being downward to an upright position. For Dawkins, it causes her heart rate to speed faster than normal to keep blood flowing to her brain and other organs.

Before Dawkins found out she had POTS, she suffered from stomach problems like gastroparesis, which is a disorder that slows or stops the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine. To help take care of the gastroparesis, her mother, Karen Dawkins, said three options were available: start taking a pill that can cause her face to twitch for the rest of her life; start taking a different pill that could cause her to have suicidal thoughts or have Botox injected into her stomach lining. Because Karen was working part time, she did not feel comfortable leaving her daughter home alone if Jessica started to have suicidal thoughts.

Leaving the other two options for Jessica to decide, they eventually chose the Botox injection. For about eight months, the injection allowed Dawkins to be able to eat until the problems started again. The procedure was done again, and Dawkins was referred to Medical University of South Carolina to see another gastro doctor. After multiple failed attempts of trying different medication, Dawkins’ gastro doctor suggested to her adolescent doctor she might have POTS.

After a few questions from her adolescent doctor, Dawkins underwent the Poor Man’s Tilt Table Test, a process of checking her blood pressure while she was lying down, sitting up and then standing up. From the results, her doctor confirmed she did have POTS.

Dawkins said many people with POTS have a hard time being diagnosed because the doctors don’t believe them. “It has every symptom imaginable, but it doesn’t show up on any tests for any reason to be having that,” she said.

In her case, before she moved from South Carolina to Wyoming, Dawkins suffered from tremendous tingling and pain in her hands. It was to the point she couldn’t touch her jeans without feeling like sandpaper. Art class was especially difficult for her because she couldn’t hold a pencil or knead the eraser. A classmate and friend, Eleni Ladd, said, “If you see her, you wouldn’t realize she’s going through anything at all because she’s so strong.”

The day before Dawkins and her family moved to Wyoming, she had an electromyogram study done. The process includes the doctor sticking an electrode needle into the muscle. The electrode is connected to wires that allow the muscle’s electrical activity to be recorded while at rest and then while the muscle tightens. Depending on the patient’s sensitivity, it can feel like a pinprick in some areas of the body or like a knife being plunged into the muscle. In Dawkins’ case, while her doctor wanted to test all four limbs, she could deal only with one of her arms being tested.

From the results, her doctor told her she had Small Fiber Neuropathy and suggested she visit the famous Mayo Clinic. For two weeks at the Mayo Clinic, tests were done, but in the end, POTS is still unknown to most of the medical world, and there is no cure yet. By the end of her visit, doctors told her to exercise, eat lots of salt and drink plenty of water.

Since then, Dawkins has seen three different neurologists with multiple other doctors’ visits and has tried to live her life as normally as possible.

Every day is a challenge. POTS is an invisible illness from the outside looking in, and people “don’t understand why you don’t feel so good or why you walk so slowly,” Dawkins said.

Whereas a year ago she couldn’t attend classes because of her condition, last spring the multimedia major said she couldn’t believe she had only one sick day. However, it’s not perfect. In class Dawkins said it’s hard because of the lights overhead cause her to get migraines, and some days she wears sunglasses to try to prevent them.

Over the phone, her mother said how hard it is for her daughter: “It’s been a hard journey because everything changes on a day-to-day basis and sometimes hourly.” On bad days, Dawkins said the room spins, and she must take nausea medicine so she can eat. On those days getting out of bed feels like walking on pins and needles.

On good days, Dawkins feels better with little aches and muscle pains or headaches. On those days, she said she must be careful not to push her body too far.

If she does, she will get “an event hangover.” An example of this would be going to the mall during the day and later that night she would “walk like an 80-year-old lady” as her mother put it.

As a mother, Karen never forgets that her daughter is sick, but, periods of time pass when nothing bad happens. Then, when Dawkins has muscles spasms, it’s like a cold slap to the face.

Before Dawkins’ medical problems started, she played softball and enjoyed ice skating. From Karen’s perspective, the hardest part has been her daughter hasn’t been able to live a normal teenage life. “Her body limits her of what she wants to do,” she said.

Throughout her procedures, Dawkins’ mother said her daughter has always been optimistic with a smile on her face. During an appointment in Denver, the doctor said, “Jessica, you still have a smile on your face,” almost questioning how her patient could still be happy after everything she had been through.

Dawkins replied: “Because I have to. That’s just how I have to deal with it.”  Her mother concurred, “She chooses to be happy.”

Dawkins doesn’t know how long she will be sick, but she lives each day with a smile and the hope that one day she will be cured. Surrounded by her loving family and friends, Dawkins epitomizes Bob Marley’s quote, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.”