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Charting her own path

A Stanford frosh’s tale of recovery and resilience

By

It was the summer of 2015, and Gabriela Lipson had a plan.

She had just graduated from Canyon Crest Academy with a 4.31 GPA, and in a matter of months she’d be off to Pomona College, where she would revel in the warmth of the Claremont sun and the intimacy of seminar classes. She’d join an a cappella group, major in molecular biology and finally realize her dream of becoming a medical scientist.

But as Gabriela would learn — well before the COVID-19 pandemic taught many of us the same lesson — plans can change on a dime.

That fall, Gabriela’s best friends headed to Duke and Brown and Berkeley, commencing their studies in math and music and electrical engineering.

Gabriela was ready, too. She’d picked out her twin-extra-long sheets — purple linen patterned with an abstract layout of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, her beachside hometown — and everything. But come September, the sheets remained folded in her closet. All her belongings — her musical theater paraphernalia, her posters of The Swell Season and Damien Rice, her framed photos of personal idols Renée Fleming and Jane Goodall — would be staying in her bedroom.

And so would Gabriela herself — because college had to be put on hold.

***

On a Friday morning a month into her junior year of high school, Gabriela woke up feeling like the Tin Man.

As she tried to lift herself out of bed, her muscles and joints creaked. A stinging sensation shot down her spine, and she felt as if insects were crawling across her skin. Her body was heavy, as though she were made of metal.

It was Oct. 11, 2013, a date both Gabriela and her mother, Aviva Berlin, have etched in their memory. Gabriela had woken up to acute pain — a pain so severe and widespread that she struggled to move.

It was a sudden shift. The day before, Gabriela had been fine; now, she couldn’t walk up and down the stairs without help, couldn’t take a shower without sitting down. As the months passed, her pain failed to subside.

Over the next two years, Gabriela visited doctor after doctor — pediatricians, rheumatologists, neurologists — but each visit left her with more questions than answers. These physicians ran a number of tests, all inconclusive. On paper, they said, nothing was wrong with Gabriela — even as simple movements, like hugging and clapping, would send shockwaves of pain through her body.

Eventually, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a syndrome that fit her symptoms but offered little in the way of cause. It was a diagnosis of exclusion that several doctors agreed upon — but they couldn’t pinpoint the source of her deteriorating health. Without a remedy in sight, Gabriela was, in her words, “living with the fact that this could be [her] life forever.”

And that’s to say nothing of fibromyalgia’s reputation as a “bitterly controversial condition,” one whose legitimacy as a diagnosis is disputed by some doctors who tell patients that their symptoms are in their head. Historically, the illness was stigmatized as a “woman’s issue”; one Illinois physician characterized his exclusively female fibromyalgia patients as “worry worts.”

While Gabriela’s medical appointments frequently took her out of school, she continued to excel in her Advanced Placement courses. Still, the little things — typing, brushing her hair, putting her shoes on — became increasingly difficult. Whenever she’d have to walk long distances — in a museum, at the grocery store — she used a wheelchair. Constantly fatigued, Gabriela spent more and more of her life in bed.

High school seniors are already burdened with so many daunting questions: Will I get into college? Can I live on my own? What happens next?

Gabriela was dealing with yet another: Why am I in pain?

***

Gabriela’s mother, Aviva, is no stranger to challenges. A Venezuelan immigrant, she learned English at the age of 21, earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is a single mom with two kids. But nothing could have prepared her for her daughter’s illness. “Watching your kid suffer is the most difficult thing,” she said.

Gabriela Lipson and her mother, Aviva Berlin. (Photo courtesy of Gabriela Lipson)

As she saw Gabriela’s condition decline, Aviva would continually ask herself, “Is this going to be the new normal? Is she going to get better? What is she going to be able to do? When is this going to go away?”

“And what can I do about it?” she added.

Aviva and Gabriela spent hours researching chronic pain online. One day in 2015, they came across a TED talk by Dr. Elliot Krane, a pediatric anesthesiologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. In the video, Krane addresses the myriad ways in which pain is misunderstood. Aviva was impressed by Krane’s compassionate and erudite demeanor; Gabriela, for the first time, felt “seen and heard.”

Aviva booked a consultation with Krane in Palo Alto, which was an eight-hour drive from Cardiff. At this point — July 2015, the summer after Gabriela’s high school graduation — they had already seen 11 doctors in search of an explanation, of some glimmer of hope.

Krane made the long car ride worth their while. Skeptical of Gabriela’s working fibromyalgia diagnosis, he conducted a “very comprehensive evaluation” of her medical history and suggested that her illness be investigated for a potential infectious cause. Krane referred Gabriela to Stanford’s Division of Infectious Diseases, where — finally — she discovered the source of her pain: a tick-borne infection called ehrlichiosis.

“He changed her life,” Aviva said. “He absolutely changed the course of her life.”

Aviva believes Gabriela got the tick bite during the summer of 2013, when she was at a summer music camp in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, a Lyme-endemic area. Gabriela has always loved singing, and at the time considered pursuing a professional career in opera. She never thought her passion would lead her, however indirectly, to such pain.

Gabriela’s story is not unusual among people with tick-borne illnesses. According to a 2019 study on over 12,000 patients with Lyme disease, 72% of participants were misdiagnosed before receiving the correct diagnosis; 51% were incorrectly diagnosed for over three years; and 53% saw more than five clinicians before being diagnosed.

With the mystery solved, Gabriela looked forward to starting at Pomona. But the doctors of the infectious disease division had other plans.

“You’ll need some time off before starting college,” they told her, as tick-borne illnesses — particularly those left undiagnosed for a long time — can be difficult to heal.

“I wasn’t ready to hear that,” Gabriela said. “I was very hopeful after receiving an answer, but it wasn’t a complete sense of joy and relief.” After all, she had a plan, and it did not include any time off. Besides, none of her friends were taking gap years.

For a few days every other month, Gabriela would see a team of specialists in the Bay Area. On the way, she’d visit Stanford’s campus, where she liked to sit outside Tresidder Memorial Union. She’d see students walk in and out of the restaurants and cafés lining the road, hear them laugh and commiserate with one another and think to herself: As soon as I recover, going to college is my priority.

***

Though bed-bound, Gabriela was determined to fill the time meaningfully.

She became certified as a Hatha yoga instructor: The practice, and its focus on mindfulness, helped ease her pain. And at a concept development startup, she helped scientists translate their esoteric ideas into lucid TEDx talks of rhetorical force. She knew what made for a good TED talk — indeed, connecting with Dr. Elliot Krane’s video had been her first step to recovery.

Although Gabriela was engaging in “real world” work of personal import, she was being perpetually reminded that she was not on a traditional path. When high school acquaintances learned she had not “made it” to college, they were unafraid to voice their opinions. Gabriela recalled their comments:

“You were such a good student — why aren’t you in college?”

“You did so well in high school. I’m sad to see you’re not applying yourself.”

“The more gap years you take, the less likely you are to show up at college. You’re probably not even going to end up in college.”

Today, Aviva can understand where the critics were coming from. Her daughter’s illness was, in many ways, non-visible. Because Gabriela is “so verbal and so eloquent,” it was easy for others “to miss the challenges she had” — to attribute her non-linear trajectory to laziness or irrationality, when in reality she had to be more motivated and dedicated than ever.

And every summer, Gabriela’s friends would return from Duke and Brown and Berkeley. They were still studying math and music and electrical engineering. They would share stories about “their dorms and their boyfriends and their clubs,” and Gabriela would feel, all at once, everything she was missing out on. She was being left behind.

Elizabeth Tesolin, a family friend of the Lipsons, remembers these summers.

“She’s stuck in a room, taking medicine to recover from this illness and not really even knowing for sure whether she’s going to recover from it. And her friends are coming back from college, and they’re living their lives,” Tesolin said. “It’s excruciatingly difficult.”

Tesolin’s husband runs an academic enrichment program that provides tutoring and standardized test prep services, so she has seen a lot of kids move directly from high school to college.

“But everybody has a different path,” Tesolin said. “And sometimes the most difficult paths — the furthest paths — end up being the most meaningful.”

In her darkest moments, holed up in her bedroom, Gabriela found escapism and solace in the content of travel video bloggers like Nuseir Yassin, also known as Nas Daily. Through his Facebook videos, she roamed the expansive coffee fields of Medellín, Colombia and got lost in the blue-washed buildings of Chefchaouen, Morocco.

“I traveled the world from my bed,” she said.

When one of Yassin’s frequent collaborators, Agon Hare, announced that he was looking for community moderators to manage his social media channel, Project Nightfall, Gabriela jumped at the opportunity. She sent Hare a direct message about her illness and life journey, realizing that “owning [her] story was going to be one of [her] biggest sources of power.”

And with a decade of vocal training under her belt, she threw on a sloth onesie, filmed herself singing her resume and forwarded that video to Hare as well.

“He had thousands of followers, and I wanted to stand out,” Gabriela said. “So I thought, Why don’t I lean into my eccentricities and what makes me unique and fun?”

Not only did Gabriela score the job, but she quickly ascended from being a community moderator for Project Nightfall to becoming its chief communications officer — a role she effectively created for herself. Gabriela began scripting videos, designed a chatbot to filter through the thousands of messages Hare received weekly and oversaw the launch of Project Nightfall’s website and merchandising line.

The travel influencer community is close-knit, and soon Gabriela found herself in contact with YouTuber Daxon, a self-described “animal whisperer” based in Australia. Through the grapevine of friends and colleagues, Daxon had heard about her diligence and approachability.

“With Gabi being such a positive person,” he said, “people talk about her because she’s so helpful.”

The months Gabriela spent writing blogs and pitching video ideas for Daxon only served to confirm the high praise he’d heard about her.

“When you talk to her, she opens her mind, and she’s very loving,” Daxon said. “She could be, like, a psychiatrist or something.”

Daxon (left) and Gabriela in Malta. (Photo courtesy of Gabriela Lipson)

For a while, Gabriela hoped to rejoin the timeline she had set out for herself. She took two classes at her local community college — she wanted to keep learning — but they did not offer the university experience Gabriela had long dreamed about.

It was through the support of her mother, Tesolin, Daxon and others that Gabriela came to realize: The time wasn’t lost.

“Although I wasn’t learning how to take derivatives and things like that — I was learning really important life lessons about what makes me happy, and about my resilience,” Gabriela said.

Instead of saying, “I’m not doing what my friends are doing,” she thought, “Okay, so my life is going to look a little bit different. How can I invite new opportunities?” Instead of focusing on what she had lost, she zeroed in on what she could build and create in her circumstances.

Even as Gabriela started to appreciate her non-traditional path, her periodic stopovers at Stanford reaffirmed her desire to go to college. And although she was still in the process of treatment for her tick-borne illness, she was approaching a full recovery.

And so, in 2018, she reapplied to colleges. This time, her priorities were different — with more life experience, she decided she wanted to attend a large research university.

Stanford rose to the top of her list.

***

As the decisions rolled in, Gabriela was nervous. How would her three gap years look to admissions officers?

She knew her application was strong. In her essays, she’d poured her heart on the page with the same commitment she drew on when she sang her resume for Project Nightfall.

But by the time the status update from Stanford dropped into her email, Gabriela had already faced a couple rejections and waitlists from smaller, less selective schools. Stanford was the dream: It was the institution that had found the origin of her pain, the institution that had irrevocably changed her life for the better. But even when she had seen the hubbub of Stanford campus life firsthand, the dream remained hazy, always out of reach.

When Gabriela logged in and read the letter, the dream snapped into focus. Her reaction, which Aviva playfully calls “the scream,” echoed through the house.

“You know when dogs get the zoomies and run around?” Gabriela said. “That was basically me.”

She rushed out the door and sprinted down her street, leaving the years of immobility in her wake.

All the same, once her excitement settled, that little tinge of doubt endured. As she arrived at the final stages of her recovery, she had to consolidate her health gains. In the meantime, Project Nightfall skyrocketed in popularity, bringing her to the beaches of Malta, where she met Daxon in person for the first time and had the opportunity to help Yassin with the celebration of his 1,000th video. She also undertook research with an epigeneticist — whom she actually met in her yoga teacher training.

2020 was the magic year — now recovered, after years of pain and exhaustion and triumph and resilience, she would finally be entering Stanford’s famed archways as a member of the class of 2024.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Gabriela discovered that she — and her purple sheets — would again be staying at home.

***

Gabriela took the news in stride. After her time away from formal schooling, she was thankful for every lecture, every discussion with her classmates and professors — virtual setting notwithstanding.

“It was a difficult adjustment after not being in school,” she said. “Starting at Stanford — that was like going from zero to 100 miles per hour, like the acceleration in a Tesla. It was so freakin’ fast.”

But her time pursuing opportunities in the “real world” has given her an enormous gift: perspective.

For so long, Gabriela could not imagine herself in college. Now that she’s finally here (at least virtually), she’s come in with “new eyes,” ready to soak up every minute.

“If I had come to Stanford as an 18-year-old, I don’t necessarily know if I would have felt this grateful,” she said. “So I would urge people to take advantage of every single opportunity that they have here.”

And while her 18-year-old self wanted a small environment like Pomona, the Gabriela of today appreciates that Stanford is home to a more diverse student body, including others with non-traditional paths like hers. And even though Stanford’s campus is over 50 times the size of Pomona’s, she’s found the intimate classroom setting she craved in Stanford’s introductory seminars.

“I was, like, crying after the first Animal Behavior IntroSem class cause I was so grateful,” she recalled, laughing. “And the professor was wondering if I was okay, but honestly it was just cause I was so happy to be in class.”

Gabriela tries not to sweat the small stuff — “knowing that one quiz or one test isn’t everything” has been extremely valuable.

“It sounds bad to say that everything pales in comparison [to my illness],” she said. “But I’ve made it through that, so I know that I can make it through these little hurdles along the way.”

According to Daxon, Gabriela need not worry at all. “She’s achieved so much before even stepping foot into college,” he said.

And with her work experience, speaking up in class or going to a professor’s office hours have become much less intimidating. “I know that if I had come in as an 18-year-old freshman, I would have been starstruck,” she said.

As for the teenagers in her cohort? She admits there are a few generational gaps in knowledge. “I’m definitely not as familiar with TikTok as some of the freshmen are,” Gabriela said, smiling. And she’s a little confused about the hair parting debate (“Side part versus middle part or whatever that is”).

Nor does she plan to party and binge drink when she gets to campus. “Not like that’s a bad thing,” she explained, “but I know who I am and what I like.”

Most of the time, however, she doesn’t notice the age difference because, in her view, Stanford students are mature beyond their years.

“I also tend to be a really optimistic, smiley, happy person,” she said. “I think my energy is similar to the 18-year-olds in that way.”

Gabriela doesn’t want to hide her age, though.

“I think that there’s value in having friends of many different ages,” she said. And while “it’s great to bond with fellow freshmen who are around your age,” she encourages all students to branch out and connect with younger and older students alike, who can learn from each other by sharing their diverse experiences.

Whereas other schools may have seen Gabriela’s background as a point of ambivalence, the Stanford community, Gabriela feels, has always embraced her non-traditional path.

“That Stanford had even considered me is just really special and speaks a lot to the institution,” she said.

***

Herbalist, poet and Lyme scholar Stephen Harrod Buhner says that “diseases like Lyme … reduce a person down to the core. The old life gets stripped away one layer at a time, like an onion.” The superficialities are peeled back until only the essentials remain.

“It’s a difficult process,” he continues, “and one that our culture doesn’t understand … There is, however, a tremendous rebirth that can happen on the other side.”

COVID-19 has similarly uprooted all of our lives, stripping them to their bare essentials. Essential workers, essential businesses, essential supplies. Essential errands, essential passions, essential friendships.

Gabriela had to take stock of these essentials years ago. “What’s interesting about Gabi,” Tesolin noted, “is that she kind of was in a COVID physical state well before COVID occurred. She was isolated due to the course of medicines she was on. She had to find a way to exist, to relate to other people, to maintain her thinking, her creativity, her brain, her body.”

“But she really was exceptionally creative and made a way forward,” Tesolin continued, before amending her description. “And not just a way forward — she’s actually creating meaning from it and has exercised incredible resilience.”

Long before the constraints of a COVID gap year became an issue for the 378 Stanford first-years who deferred enrollment last spring, Gabriela was thinking about how she could create rewarding work for herself from her bedroom.

“You can have these linear ideas about life,” Aviva said. “Here I had this kid, and I thought that I had done all the right things. She went to a good school and I tried to support her interests” — namely, the love of music that sent Gabriela to the Berkshires that fateful summer.

But when Aviva looks back, one specific phrase comes to mind. “There’s an expression in Spanish: Eso es lo que nos tocó vivir. ‘That’s what we had to live.’ And so we have to deal with it.”

Gabriela wouldn’t trade her summer in the Berkshires for the world. She’s grateful for where she is today and all that is ahead of her. She stepped down from Project Nightfall when her Stanford coursework ramped up, but she’s still working closely with Daxon. Currently, they are writing a book about the quokka — often called the “world’s happiest animal” — using the merry marsupial as a metaphor for mindfulness. And these days, her body is capable of things she once thought unimaginable: an hour-long spin class, a seven-mile hike.

Gabriela explores the streets of Valletta, Malta. (Photo courtesy of Gabriela Lipson)

Gabriela has carved out her path in college, too. In her first-year writing and rhetoric class, she was able to research Lyme disease and its intersections with climate change. As a member of Stanford Talisman, she’s performed in a number of virtual concerts. And once she’s on campus, she hopes to reconnect with the anesthesiologists who, six years ago, validated her pain and gave her faith that she would get better.

Some things don’t change: She’s still passionate about biology. But she’s also loved her psychology courses this year, so she hasn’t yet declared a major — she knows too well what can happen to the best laid plans.

Gabriela’s journey — some parts out of her control, other parts actualized by pure courage and drive — has been circuitous to say the least. But, now recovered, Gabriela looks back on her illness in peace.

“It adds to the diversity of my experience and what I’m able to offer as a human being,” she said. “I feel that it’s made me more kind and empathetic, and I’m very proud of the person that I’ve become … even though it wasn’t pleasant.”

Her supporters — especially Aviva, who has been with her every step of the way — are immensely proud as well.

“She has the most extraordinary sense of determination,” Aviva said. “She was dealt a very difficult card with her illness. I think Gabi has had to give up a lot of things that young people don’t even think about having to give up.”

Throughout her first year of college, Gabriela said that “gratitude was the grounding force.”

After watching her daughter fall and rise, cry and laugh, encounter obstacles and persevere over the years, Aviva doesn’t quite agree. The real force, in her eyes, is Gabriela herself.

This article is part of a series on the myth of coming-of-age.

Contact The Daily’s The Grind section at thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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Jared Klegar is a Staff Writer for Arts & Life and a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team. Born and raised in New York City, he looks forward to the day when live theater can resume safely. Contact him at jklegar 'at' stanforddaily.com.