Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Danville teen stands up to odds

This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald in February 2009.

Six years ago, at age 13, Tiffany Breger of Danville called her mom to come pick her up from the gymnastics class she loved so much.

“I wasn't feeling well and we didn't think anything of it,” she said, “but I never returned to gymnastics.”

Breger, who recently received the Sandia National Lab / Las Positas College Student of the Year award, said her doctors were unable to diagnose her ailment, and even a series of specialists couldn’t explain the chronic pain she was feeling.

“The first year, I was completely bedridden,” she said, “and I lost the ability to walk.”

Though Breger was homeschooled, the simple acts of reading, writing, and doing math required more stamina than her body could handle. Eventually, her doctors excused her from school permanently.

“Many times people wish to be free of work and responsibilities,” she said. “But it’s a scary feeling to have no expectations of you, no belief in any potential you have, and no hope for your future.”

Homebound for three years and feeling she’d lost everything that defined who she was, Breger saw life slipping away. So at 16 years old, she made the decision to get her life back. She entered therapy at Children’s Hospital in Oakland where she painfully and slowly regained her ability to walk.

She even became determined to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma.
“I started to re-teach myself math,” she said. “Every day I’d try to read a bit of a chapter and do some problems.”

Though the effort resulted in exhaustion, pain, and fever, Breger was persistent. She steadily built up her endurance. “Much to my surprise, I passed the high school proficiency exam in October 2005,” she said.

She didn’t stop there. Breger began interviewing primary care physicians and took charge of her case, writing down her medical history and making a list of all medications, test results, and the symptoms she’d experienced over the years. “I went in telling my doctors what I felt I needed and what steps I wanted taken.” In time, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

Then in the spring 2006, Breger signed up to take just one class at Chabot College. She wished she could take more units, but she hadn’t been in a classroom setting in years and wasn’t sure how much she could handle.

Then, after looking longingly through the college catalogue, she took a leap of faith.
“I took a full 12 units,” she said, asking for no special accommodations. “I wanted to feel normal. I wanted to know that I could keep up with everyone else.” Sure enough, Breger earned all A’s.

Soon, at the request of a fellow classmate, she joined a new environmental club being formed on campus. Though she didn't think she had the confidence to fulfill the duties, she even took on the role of secretary. “I shocked myself,” she said, referring to how she designed the club website and promotional materials, created a mailing list, and chaired events.

As Breger’s health and confidence grew, she also took classes at Las Positas College, joined the Alpha Gamma Sigma Honor society, and got involved in student government, eventually becoming student body president. She joined other associations and even volunteered in the same unit at Children’s Hospital where she had been a patient.

In fact, Breger’s brown eyes shine when she recounts an experience during a physical therapy session with a 9-year-old patient. The girl was refusing to cooperate, and wouldn’t participate in simple standing exercises.

“Her therapist couldn’t get her to listen.” Breger said. “So I told her what I went through, how frustrating it was, but how the hard work does pay off.”

At first the girl didn't respond. Then she pulled herself up on her own, and she stood.

This fall, Breger hopes to transfer from Las Positas College to U.C. Berkeley to major in psychology and public health. She eventually wants to attend Harvard to earn a doctorate in biological sciences in public health, and then work to address weaknesses in the healthcare industry.

And like her own personal story of triumph and the experience with the girl who Breger inspired to stand on her own, she wants to teach chronically ill teenagers and adults to become their own advocates: “I want people to learn how to stand up for themselves.”

1 comment:

she said...

gorgeous picture! -and wonderfully inspiring story

testimony again.. that what we love to do, instructs us on what we are here to do

and what suffering we endure, instructs us on who we are here to help

awesome strides and accomplishments for such a young person

no telling how many lives she will touch and improve

"to you! tiffany! your great life spirit

and you jim! for another great article!"

love, ~s.