If you do not know Brooke Bloom ’20, you have probably seen her around the Center for the Sciences and Innovation writing on a whiteboard or helping explain biochemistry concepts to her classmates, with a vigor that can only be motivated by pure passion. Her professors know her as a driven student with an enthusiastic desire to become a physician and an inquisitive approach to all her classes. Her peers know her as a girl with a strong work ethic who is always happy to help friends learn that tough chemistry mechanism. However, what people have seen the last three years at Trinity is only a fraction of her story.
Bloom was diagnosed with a genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) in her senior year of high school, which has significantly shaped her college experience in a way she has, until now, kept under wraps. She explains that she was inspired to share her story because “hearing other people’s health stories has been a huge help to me, and I hope my journey can do the same for somebody else.”
EDS is a genetic connective tissue disorder that affects the production of collagen, one of the main proteins that helps stabilize the body. Collagen is in the body’s ligaments, tendons, blood vessels, organs, and bones. When there is a defect in the collagen, you get a lot of “loose, stretchy things,” Bloom explains. “It makes me flexible, but with that my blood vessels become flexible, so there is easy bruising. It also affects the function of my intestines, heart, and stability of my joints.”
She gave a metaphor that illustrates the extensiveness of the problems collagen defects can cause: “If you build a house with only half the number of wooden beams, from the outside the house will look sturdy; you won’t really know anything is wrong. But over time things are going to break, and you are going to have to do patchwork to put pieces back together because the house is just not as stable.”
Growing up, Bloom had a lot of broken bones, fractures, dislocations, and other injuries that all took a long time to heal. She had problems with her heart rate and experienced severe allergies. Because EDS is a rare condition with fewer than 200,000 cases presenting each year in the United States, her road to diagnosis was long. It was not until Bloom and her mother were watching a medical TV show, Mystery Diagnosis, where a girl was diagnosed with EDS, did they make an appointment with a geneticist and discover that all of the bizarre afflictions Bloom had experienced throughout childhood were connected. The tests came back positive, and she herself was diagnosed with EDS. She continued with life as a senior in high school, making minor life adjustments such as eating more salt to regulate her heart rate.
Bloom’s life did not remarkably change until spring of her first year at Trinity, when her symptoms worsened. EDS progresses for many individuals when they are in their late teens and early twenties, regardless of injury, but Bloom also suffered a concussion at Trinity that may have affected her symptoms. “I was having trouble standing, my heart was going crazy,” she says. “My blood pressure was low. People could not figure out what was going on. My legs would turn blue. I would lay down and my heart rate would still be through the roof.” Finally, on the last day of finals for the spring semester, she had her self-described “defining episode.”
“It was probably one of the worst heart episodes I have had,” Bloom says. “We were getting ready to go dinner as a hall and say goodbye to each other for the summer. I could not feel my face or my fingers, and it lasted for two hours.”
Bloom met with a cardiologist who specialized in EDS. He diagnosed her with dysautonomia, a common symptom of EDS, and was more firm in instructing her to adjust her lifestyle. She was not allowed to do aerobic exercise, stay up all night, eat certain foods, or over-exert herself. Come fall, her course load would need to be reduced, forcing her to withdraw from a class and take some over the summer.
She began to try different treatments that could help her regain “stability,” a term Bloom uses to express periods where she is able to manage the severity of her symptoms with more control. Things that seem small to most people, like a common cold or a sleepless night, can get rid of the stability Bloom works hard to maintain in the midst of a full pre-med class schedule, coupled with research, resident mentoring, and more. “One of my main limitations would probably be that I push myself too far at times,” Bloom explains. “There are times I need to recognize that I cannot blow off my health when problems occur. It is challenging to know that I might have to slow down for a given period of time, but that is okay.”
Bloom remains positive in the face of adversity because she is motivated by a greater purpose: to become a doctor. She is grounded in reality and yet simultaneously immensely optimistic; a rare combination that will make her an excellent physician. Bloom explains that she has always dreamed of becoming a physician and entered college with the goal of one day becoming a pediatric oncologist. After her experiences as a patient with EDS, her professional goals have changed slightly. She is now considering complex care as a future specialty. Complex care is where a physician works on a medical case by taking into account everything that the person’s medical history entails. “You can go from one doctor to another, and they are all very focused on that one aspect they want to try and manage or fix,” Bloom says. “They might be really good at what they do, but when everything is not taken into account, it can be very hard to get to the end goal or make progress.”
As a psychology major, Bloom has directed her studies so that she can learn to tackle these problems with a big-picture approach and treat the patient rather than the disease. Instead of picking a major that overlaps with the natural science coursework she has to take to get into medical school, she says she chose psychology because she “felt that majoring in psych would enable me to integrate science with patient care.” Bloom feels that there is a need for doctors to realize that they are seeing patients at one isolated point in time, and that patients lead an entire life outside of the examination room. “The best doctors I have seen in my experience are the ones that focus on my life goals when determining my care plan,” she says. Her study of psychology will equip her with the tools she needs to communicate with a wide variety of patients so that she can integrate care in a way that aligns with their lifestyle.
When I asked Bloom about how she has experienced personal growth through all of this, she smiled knowingly. Mostly, she has remained the same person: steadfast in her goals and stubborn, hardly every backing down when she is told she cannot do something, physically or academically. Her strong work ethic is at times her greatest ally and, at other times, her adversary. Despite this delicate balancing act, Bloom chooses to remain true to herself.
The fear that life can get in the way of reaching your goals is real for everybody to different extents. Bloom faces the reality that her health might get in the way of her goals every single day. When I asked her to give advice to others struggling with their own challenges, Bloom explains how she feels the concept of a “barrier” is an unproductive way to perceive a problem: “Everyone is going through something, whether it is medical, personal, or something else. It is not easy and it can make life harder, but it isn’t something you can always change. Sometimes you just have to accept the reality and move forward; I can still do my best to make my reality as good as possible.”
With the interview drawing to a close, she opens up her backpack to retrieve her notes so she can begin her studying, saying, “I still have my goals—these are the same goals I had prior to college. How I go about things looks a little different now, but I still go about them.”