Emergency Funding Gets CALS Student with Rare Neurological Syndrome Back to Class

Wednesday, October 9, 2019
“What keeps me moving forward is the persistent thought that each challenge I'm facing is preparing me to help someone heal in the future. I am being taught lessons that I would not otherwise learn, so I hold onto the idea that the detour in my path is a gift, not a misfortune. I have been very lucky to have a solid support team through friends and family, and their positivity helps me to keep smiling.”

Three days into a summer vacation in Spain, Kara Dunn, an honors student in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, began to experience double vision. She decided to sleep it off but awoke to a living nightmare. When she opened her eyes, she soon realized she couldn’t blink or smile.

Kara was rushed to the hospital, where things progressed very quickly.

“It reached a point where Kara had been in the hospital for two days and still did not have a diagnosis. She was slowly becoming more and more paralyzed. Eventually her breathing became affected,” said her brother Ryan.

A medical student at the Mayo Clinic, Ryan called on his neurology professors for a consultation. Together with Kara’s primary care physician, the group crafted a letter to the doctors treating her case in Spain. Within four hours, she had a diagnosis—Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological syndrome in which the immune system attacks the nerves.

“I realized quickly that if I were to fight and fight hard, I had to remain positive. And part of remaining positive was ignoring what would happen in the distant future and just focusing on getting well enough to be transported home,” Kara recalled. “I put up a mental wall against whether or not I would ever walk again, ever write or ever even talk. And I just focused on the next step.”

Kara’s story and her family’s efforts to get her home made international headlines. She was medically airlifted to Phoenix, where she received treatment at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. While most people with Guillain-Barré syndrome fully recover, there can be lasting effects. Kara’s case is uniquely complicated.

“I was actually diagnosed with Miller Fisher Syndrome at the same time as Guillain Barré Syndrome. Miller Fisher Syndrome is a sub-variant of Guillain Barré, but they usually occur individually and not together,” Kara said. “The overlap of the two conditions is what made my case even more complicated and what caused it to result in both full facial and full body paralysis with need for intubation.”

While Kara initially made a quick recovery and had hoped to get back in the classroom this fall, in recent months she has been experiencing new and different symptoms, including severe physical and mental fatigue. “My doctors currently believe that there is another condition at play, likely caused or exacerbated by GBS, however I am still searching for answers,” said Kara.

Thanks to emergency funding made available through both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Honors College, Kara is able to return to school part-time, with two online classes offered through the Department of Nutritional Sciences. While she continues to work with her doctors in Phoenix, these classes will help keep her moving toward her goals.

“I am very interested in nutrigenomics, epigenetics, and precision wellness, and I plan to ultimately pursue an MD or MD/PhD and practice functional medicine,” said Kara. “My goal is to one day teach patients how their genes and environment affect their health.”

Kara’s experience has only further fueled her passion. “I'm not only gaining a patient's perspective to the healthcare system, but am able to experiment with my own health and discover just how much of an impact nutrition truly has. Nutrigenomics is one of the courses that I am taking online this fall, and I'm really grateful for the opportunity to do so.”

Rosemary Brandt
Media Relations Manager, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences