Obstacles push student toward medical school

Jessica Ulrich lives with Crohn’s disease, and it’s pushed her to pursue a career in medicine.

First year medical student Jessica Ulrich was diagnosed with Crohn's disease when she was 15 years old, and while the disease isn't fatal, it affects her everyday life.

Holly Peterson

First year medical student Jessica Ulrich was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she was 15 years old, and while the disease isn’t fatal, it affects her everyday life.

Allison Kronberg

All Jessica Ulrich could think about that day was her Medical College Admission Test scores.

She pinched her nose and forced the large cup of glue-thick, reeking, yellowy liquid past her gag reflex. Her empty stomach protested, but her mom was waiting with a tried-and-true half-stick of gum to kill the taste. Two more cups to go.

With an IV pumping into her veins, she lay on a plastic board, hands above her head and rolled into the familiar tunnel of beeping and knocking sounds of the Magnetic Resonance Enterography machine.

But this time, Ulrich wasn’t worried about the complications of her Crohn’s disease.

“I was thinking the whole time, ‘My scores are coming out right now,’” Ulrich said.

After it was over, her shaking hands grabbed her phone. As nurses wheeled her from one room to another, she typed in her password and cried when the slow hospital Internet finally brought her to the page.

The disease couldn’t stop the 23-year-old from getting into the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Not an easy diagnosis

Ulrich was dissecting a human cadaver when her anatomy lab group, and closest medical school friends, learned of her Crohn’s disease. She was having trouble using the scalpel because of a reaction to her medication that made the joints in her fingers sore.

The students in her group, including her good friend Madeleine Roberts and her current boyfriend, understood the disease from their studies, which came as a relief to Ulrich.

But a decade ago, things were different.

Crohn’s disease is a lifelong autoimmune disease with no cure, affecting up to 700,000 Americans. It belongs to a group of conditions known as inflammatory bowel diseases. Chronic symptoms can include extreme stomach pain and nausea, weight loss and high fevers.

As a baby, Jessica constantly complained of stomach aches, said her mother, Nathalie Ulrich.

For the family, it was the beginning of years of frustration and misdiagnoses.

Different doctors told the Ulrichs that Jessica’s symptoms could be due to psychological disorders, eating disorders, diet problems or even cancer.

The average Crohn’s disease patient is misdiagnosed twice, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

“As a parent, you always try to fix things and make them right,” said Jessica’s father, Jeff Ulrich. “But this was something that was obviously a little more awkward, because you can’t fix it.”

When Jessica was 15, her pediatrician referred her to pediatric gastroenterologist Dr. Ramalingam Arumugam, who finally diagnosed her with Crohn’s disease.

Arumugam said it’s still difficult for the pediatricians he gets referrals from to see signs of the disease.

Because her symptoms weren’t outwardly obvious, Ulrich’s friends often didn’t understand why she didn’t want to hang out, she said. During her teenage years, that was tough.

Nearly a decade later, she’s grown more tolerant of people not knowing what she’s going through. Her family and friends say she almost never lets it get to her anymore.

“I almost wish she would complain more,” Roberts said. “I don’t understand sometimes why she doesn’t yell or scream when people are being insensitive or don’t understand what’s going on.”

In the past few years, she’s been to the emergency room at least five times. Ulrich is on her fifth treatment, and her options are running out.

“I think that kind of influenced me to want to get more involved with coming up with new treatment strategies,” she said.

Medical aspirations

Science always came easy to Ulrich. As a student at Woodbury High School, she decided she wanted a career in the field.

“I don’t know why, but it always clicked with me more than other subjects did — medicine did,” she said.

The disease sometimes made studying hard, she said, because although she often feels fine during the day, her symptoms come on at night, when most medical students are staying up late to do homework.

Because of this, Ulrich’s social life has sometimes suffered, and she and her friends were often “homebodies,” Roberts said.

Despite the obstacles, Ulrich has achieved good grades throughout her first year and has high ambitions for the future.

This summer, Ulrich said, she plans to participate in research on Crohn’s disease clinical trials. She also plans to be a counselor at a summer camp for children with Crohn’s disease as a required outreach project for school.

To help raise awareness and funds for the disease, Ulrich plans to participate in the annual CCFA Take Steps for Crohn’s and Colitis walk at Harriet Island in St. Paul on June 1. CCFA walks manager Tovah Domenick said the event is an opportunity for patients to share their stories.

“[Crohn’s is] still considered a silent disease, because patients don’t look sick from the outside and they suffer within,” Domenick said. “We don’t want to just raise funding, but raise awareness, too.”

Ulrich has made valuable connections within the University, including with associate professor of family medicine and community health Dr. Jon Hallberg, who mentored her and has referred her to doctors who have helped treat her disease.

“Whenever a physician, or in her case a future physician, has suffered a bit from a condition, I think it brings a certain sort of empathy to the table,” Hallberg said. “And I think patients can sense that.”