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Published: Sunday, 5/21/2006

Determined teen overcomes illness to reach graduation

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Annaka Gilmore, who became ill in the summer of 2005, plans to attend the University of Kansas. Annaka Gilmore, who became ill in the summer of 2005, plans to attend the University of Kansas.
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Annaka Gilmore couldn't seem to control her stomach.

Summer had just begun. She had plans to hang out with friends, earn money continuing her job as a nanny, and take a vacation - with friends or family or both.

But suddenly, on June 3, the teen began bouts of involuntary vomiting. She suffered from Rumination Syndrome, she later learned, and her stomach rejected everything she ate for months.

The summer before her senior year at St. Ursula Academy, she spent most of her time indoors, becoming weaker. Her first few months of school that fall were spent in and out of the hospital. She hadn't eaten solid food in months that she was able to fully digest.

For a long time, she didn't know what was wrong with her. She also didn't know if or when she would get better.

Today, the 17-year-old Toledoan will stand in the company of her St. Ursula classmates in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle as they receive their diplomas. After countless hours and days catching up on missed classes, research papers, projects, and exams, she will leave the all-girls Catholic academy a member of the National Honor Society and the school honor roll.

"[My] doctor said I've made it through the hardest part, but it could come back," she said from her home, sitting in the chair where she spent the vast majority of the summer of 2005.

"I remember going into the hospital when it was summer and coming out when it was winter," she added. "I don't remember much in between."

Over the next few weeks, graduates will don caps and gowns to say adieu to high school. Most will remember their senior year as one of the best in their lives. Others, like Miss Gilmore, will remember it as one of the most difficult.

No one is certain why Miss Gilmore developed Rumination Syndrome, which her doctor described as the involuntary rejection of food. She had long suffered from chronic acid reflux and often had sinus infections. In high school, she seemed to control it with medicine. Her doctor, Carlo DiLorenzo, at Columbus Children's Hospital thinks she may have contracted a virus and her weak stomach never fully recovered.

Her biggest problem was that most local doctors didn't know what ailed her. Often she was diagnosed as having an eating disorder and told there was nothing physically wrong with her. She and her family knew better.

She returned to St. Ursula in late November. During that time, her friends spent hours at her bedside. Her school held a Mass to pray for her healing. And she stayed in constant touch with teachers and the college counselor so she could catch up with her classmates and be ready to go away to college.

Her choice of school? The University of Kansas, where she could major in industrial design and where a Rumination Syndrome specialist is nearby. She was among the first of her classmates to turn in her college applications.

"Many of our students are faced with challenges or tragedies ... and have to deal with that. The event happens and they are able to move on," said Tricia Howard, St. Ursula's director of college counseling. "With Annaka, it was really just that sense of unknown. She couldn't get back to normal. She wasn't able because she was sitting in a hospital."

It took weeks before she was diagnosed. It then took weeks for her parents to convince their insurance company to pay for her treatment. At one point, she spent an entire week in the intensive-care unit suffering from seizures as her stressed body reacted to medications.

Her father, Mike, a Toledo police officer; mother, Annette; and sisters, Lauren, 22, Michelle, 20, and Hannah, 11, never left her side.

In early November, the student returned to Columbus Children's Hospital, where Dr. DiLorenzo helped her through a multifaceted treatment program that prescribed medicine to relax her stomach and a program to trick her stomach into accepting food. She started eating a crumb once an hour and worked up to a full meal.

After several months of painful procedures and uncertainty, it took about a week for her to retrain her stomach to accept food.

"I've seen dozens and dozens of patients, and I've never seen somebody as motivated and so dedicated in getting rid of a problem as she did," Dr. DiLorenzo said. "She went beyond my expectations. I knew eventually she would get over it, but not as well and as quickly as she did."

She was home in time for Thanksgiving. More importantly, she was there for the Christmas dance at St. Ursula, where she wore a cream dress that flared out just enough to cover the stomach tube. It was taken out a few months later.

But she was at the dance, and that's all that mattered.

She couldn't dance, but she enjoyed the night out with her date, a friend from St. John's Jesuit High School who had undergone open heart surgery earlier in the year.

"It's easier to relate to someone in the same situation rather than feeling like you're the only one," said Jon Skidmore, 18, who recovered and will graduate from St. John's on Thursday.

"We visited each other in the hospital. When I went to visit her, she was always in good spirits."

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-724-6076.



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