The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Grad perseveres to earn degree
By PAMELA GOULD
Chanelle Felder found her mission in life through the mysterious illness that left her mind in a fog, her body bloated and her high-energy lifestyle on hold.
“I was directionless before,” the 22-year-old said. “Now I have a laserlike focus on what I want my legacy to be and what I want to get out of life.”
Felder, who graduates from Germanna Community College on Wednesday, was 16 when her slender 5-foot, 7-inch frame started expanding inexplicably.
She began having crying spells, waking in the middle of the night, and suffering numbness and pain in the feet that for years had carried her gracefully across dance floors.
Clumps of hair started falling out, she became sluggish, and her normally sharp mind started going blank.
Felder was a Mountain View High School junior, cheerleader and honors student when the symptoms began. She found them shocking and frightening.
Doctors offered possible diagnoses such as a thyroid disorder, but none fit until the North Stafford teen stumbled upon a program on the Discovery Health channel.
“My turning point was an episode of Mystery Diagnosis,” she said.
A woman named Sharmyn McGraw was describing the symptoms of Cushing’s disease. Felder immediately saw her own situation.
She went online, did research and told her parents that’s what she had. The rare disorder afflicts 10 to 15 of every 1 million people. It’s even rarer in children and adolescents.
Though her parents supported her self-diagnosis, doctors were slower to get on board. But after medical tests confirmed it, she underwent brain surgery in September 2007.
That first surgery removed a benign tumor from her pituitary gland. However, the symptoms returned, prompting a second brain surgery to remove more tumors in January 2009.
It turned out that she had cyclical Cushing’s syndrome, a condition in which the symptoms disappear and then return.
When the second surgery didn’t resolve the problems, Felder opted to have both adrenal glands removed in April 2010.
That procedure eliminated the Cushing’s symptoms because it’s driven by the hormones produced by those glands, which sit atop the kidneys.
But removal of the adrenals meant she was without the hormones they produce, which, among other things, help people cope with stress.
She now takes four medications daily to regulate her endocrine system and keeps a close watch on her stress level. But her bubbly personality and energy are back.
Felder graduated from Mountain View High in June 2008, nine months after her first surgery.
Then, on a doctor’s advice, she waited a year to start college.
Her parents urged her to ease into her courses, so it’s taken her three years. However on Wednesday, Felder will walk across the stage at the Fredericksburg Expo and Conference Center to receive her associate degree in arts and sciences.
“She’s been inspirational to other students,” said Judi Johnson–Bartlett, coordinator and student adviser at Germanna’s Stafford Center.
Johnson–Bartlett rattled off adjectives to describe Felder: determined, hard-working, dedicated, persistent. “The sky is the limit for her.”
Felder majored in science while taking classes on the Germanna campus in Spotsylvania County and at the recently opened Stafford Center.
She frequently drew on her experience for class projects and presentations.
The time spent researching her diagnosis and staying abreast of the steps in her treatment gave her an understanding of medical science and terminology she wouldn’t have learned otherwise.
It also redirected her interest from a career in social work to one in which she plans to serve as a patient advocate.
If it hadn’t been for a dash of teenage defiance, the support of her parents, and the prayer and encouragement of people at Mount Ararat Baptist Church, Felder said, she’d probably still be suffering.
That’s why she wants to study the dietetic field next fall when she attends Virginia Tech or James Madison University and why she’s also interested in communications.
“My ultimate legacy will be to get information out about this disease and about other diseases like this,” Felder said.
She also wants to provide the support for others that she received during her medical ordeal.
She’s already part of an online network of Cushing’s patients who share their stories; some of them have been heartbreaking.
She said some people have been ostracized by relatives who don’t understand their symptoms, or worse yet, suggest they’re lying and just lazy when their weight balloons and they lack energy.
Others have died from symptoms related to the disorder.
Many, she said, just resign themselves to a life of suffering after medical professionals brush off their symptoms or aren’t familiar with the disorder.
Felder said her mission crystallized as a result of Facebook communications with a man in California with Cushing’s syndrome.
She shared the treatment she’d undergone, and in her he found hope and committed to the same path.
He underwent surgery and messaged her recently to say, “You saved my life.”
Felder became teary as she shared that encounter.
“Just to think I was just a 16-year-old girl. For me to go through that and actually help someone, it made me see it wasn’t in vain,” she said, pausing to keep her composure.
“That’s why I went through it—to help people.”
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972
Germanna Community College will hold its spring graduation ceremony at the Fredericksburg Expo and Conference Center on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Chanelle Felder is scheduled to sing the national anthem as part of the commencement exercises.