Hannah Culler of Ohio has an immune disorder that lands her in the hospital frequently, but this week she was able to come to Orlando and have her dream come true: to be a medical student at the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine for one day.
Kevin Petersen, a first-year medical student at UCF, had just finished midterm exams last week when he learned that Make-A-Wish Foundation had arranged for Culler, 18, to come to the school.
So he took to Facebook to try to figure out how to make the day special for her. He was exhausted and so were his classmates, but before he knew it, his post blew up with responses and ideas. The class eventually decided to hold a White Coat Ceremony for their temporary classmate.
“It’s the most important event in the life of medical students, aside from Match Day,” Petersen said of the ceremony, which welcomes first-year medical students.
So Monday afternoon, medical school dean Dr. Deborah German broke away from a meeting and officiated the ceremony, helping Hannah put on her short white coat in front of a lecture hall filled with cheering medical students.
Her mom sat on the first row along with her dad and brother, quietly dabbing her tears with a tissue.
“I want to be just like Hannah when I grow up,” Karen Culler said later. “She doesn’t complain with the portion that God has put in her cup. She swallows it very well. And I marvel. Because her suffering is very profound.”
Hannah has Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, an immune disorder that’s not well-known and has no cure.
“You’ve heard of people who have peanut allergy and if they’re exposed to peanuts they can go into anaphylactic shock and can die?” said Karen Culler. “So for Hannah that trigger is everything. It’s being upright too long. It’s food. It’s medication. It’s heat. It’s temperature change. It’s perfumes. It’s anesthetics.”
Usually a traumatic event triggers the first episode of the disease. For Hannah, it was the moment the HPV vaccine entered her body when she was 11.
“That second, she fell off the exam table and it was hard to revive her,” her mother recalled. “Hannah’s world changed literally overnight. In a moment.”
It took several years before she was diagnosed by one of three experts in the disease. And although she’s doing better, her parents are always on edge.
“We just don’t know when’s the next [episode],” said Karen Culler, who is trained as a critical care nurse. “And it’s a little scary. So we always have to be ready.”
It took the family two years to arrange the trip to Orlando after Make-A-Wish granted Hannah’s wish. Her wish was specific: she wanted to spend that one day of medical school not just anywhere, but at UCF.
“A couple of years ago I did a report for class about medical schools and I came across UCF during my research and I knew that was where I wanted to go one day,” Hannah said. “It became my dream college.”
She’s a junior in high school and take classes online in Ohio. It’s too risky for her to be outdoors every day. Her dream is to become a pediatric emergency physician.
“I love little children,” she said. “When I’m well enough, I take care of the little babies at our church ministry.”
And to see her light up helps her parents with their broken hearts, said her mother, who watched Hannah in her new white coat, playing ping-pong with three other medical students in the exclusive student lounge, where no one else is allowed.
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