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Shriners Children's Care Inspires Former Patient to Follow Path to Medicine

Once a scoliosis patient at Shriners Children's St. Louis, now a Ph.D. student at the Mayo Clinic, Elliana developed a deep passion for science and medicine.

As a 13-year-old girl about to have scoliosis surgery, Elliana received two priceless gifts from Shriners Children's St. Louis.

“I remember one time, right before my surgery, the staff came around with a little bag and handed out teddy bears. I still have mine. It’s this pink little fluffy teddy bear,” Elliana, now 25, fondly recalled in a Zoom interview. “It wasn't anything big, but I remember those little moments made it a lot less scary. I could tell they want to take care of me here.”

That was more than a decade ago. But it resonated as the way care should happen.

Elliana’s second gift was a seed planted that bloomed years later in the form of a career path. She is working on her Ph.D. at the Mayo Clinic, focusing on biochemistry, and cellular and molecular biology. She credits her time as a patient at Shriners Children's as fostering this interest in science – while also wanting to have a close connection with patient care.

“Such an experience could have made me never want to step foot in a hospital again. But, in my case, I liked the environment so much I wanted to return as a career. I'm really thankful for my time at Shriners because, had I not had such a great experience or had I gone somewhere else, I may not even be in the medical field, which is now my passion. I'm really thankful not just for the appointments I had and the medical side of things, but the care and the excellence they strive to have in their practice which impacted me beyond just the physical healing. I'm really grateful for that and grateful for everything Shriners does.”

The journey wasn’t exactly easy though.

A Scary Time

Elliana was diagnosed with scoliosis right before she turned 11. It was a difficult couple of years because the progression of the scoliosis was becoming more and more difficult to manage.

When the Iowa native was referred to Shriners Children's St. Louis, she and her family were expecting to hear she might need surgery several years down the road. Instead, the world-class team decided she needed to have surgery as soon as possible.

“That was a big pill to swallow, as a 12- to-13-year-old,” she said. “We ended up scheduling the surgery about six months after I had that first appointment.”

Following a host of preoperative visits, the five days at the hospital the week of the surgery was a little bit of a blur. However, the overall experience remains galvanized in her mind more than a decade later.

“I think what always stuck out to me was the friendly environment. It was never scary and I never felt just shuffled in and out,” she said. “The medical treatment I received at Shriners enabled me to live life to the fullest. Getting that treatment enabled me to do a lot of things that I probably wouldn't have been able to do had I not had the surgery. Plus, experiencing the medical side of things at such a young age really did pique my curiosity and gave me a passion to pursue a career in the medical sciences.”

Elliana has simple advice she would offer to any prospective patient of Shriners who is in the same situation that you were and was feeling nervous and concerned.

“The first thing I would say is to not be afraid to ask questions,” she said. “I think sometimes in that situation, it's really overwhelming. You go from having no idea what a certain disease is to all of a sudden you're living it and trying to understand this complex idea that you kind of understand and kind of don't. But I say, just ask questions. At least for me, knowing what's going on makes it a little less scary.”

Dr. Lawrence Lenke, one of the medical professionals who took care of Elliana at Shriners, made her feel comfortable asking those questions

“He was incredibly busy. He worked one day at Shriners, and the other day he was doing work at the Barnes Jewish Hospital and was a professor there. He always had an entourage of medical students and resident doctors following him, so he was busy,” she said. “But I never felt rushed. He always asked, ‘Do you have any questions? Is there anything I can explain to you?’ And he always took time to respond to my questions. And to me, that was really valuable.”

The Journey Ahead

When she started applying to graduate schools, Elliana knew she really wanted an environment that was not just academic, but really had the clinic side of care.

“I loved the environment of Shriners where kids could come to find help and healing even in the middle of difficult situations. They were still coming to this place that seemed really happy. I have reflected a lot on my own experience at that time.”

Experiencing the medical side of things at such a young age really did pique my curiosity and gave me a passion to pursue a career in the medical sciences.

Elliana recently took advantage of an opportunity to put her passion for medicine into practice at Mayo Clinic.

“I'm not super far into my thesis research in genetic cardiology yet, but I'm super excited to dive in a little deeper,” she said. “The Mayo Clinic is the perfect place to do research if you want to be connected to patient care. I wanted to contribute in some way to someone else's positive experience at a clinic or hospital.”

Building on her own experience at Shriners, this desire was a major factor in the schools to which Elliana chose to apply.

“I applied to five schools, and I didn't apply anywhere that wasn't in some sort of hospital setting. So I applied to Mayo; the University of Iowa, which has a children's hospital; Vanderbilt, which has a hospital; and several others,” she said. “All the places I really looked at and saw myself were places kind of like Shriners, where the main focus actually is patient care. And then they have a research component on top of that.”

As Elliana looks forward to the future, she will be pursuing careers that allow her to not only do research, but to do so in a patient setting.

“That was always what I said I wanted to do and I'm doing that now. I'm working in a research lab in a hospital. I love it and want to keep doing research in the future,” she said. “I also recently decided to apply to medical school so I can practice clinical care while also continuing to work in a research setting within the context of a clinic. ”

So, will Elliana’s medical experience come full circle? Maybe.

“I've really enjoyed seeing Shriners continued commitment not only to patient care, but their growth in the research side of things,” she said. “I know in St. Louis, that whole third floor, I think, is all research work. So I've really loved seeing research from Shriners, I would absolutely be interested in working there at some point.”

Shriners Children's St. Louis Opened a Window of Opportunity

Elliana was inspired by her care team.

Elliana's first day at Mayo

Elliana's first day at the Mayo Clinic

Elliana's before and after xrays of her spine

X-rays from before and after surgery.

Elliana in cap and gown next to a dog with cap on

Graduation day!

Elliana laughs with two Shriners and sock puppets

Elliana smiles at the front desk.

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