CLEARWATER — Picking up his blue cap and gown with the white honors cords this week was a surreal moment for Spenser Reed.
He's a 21-year-old student at St. Petersburg College. Just three years ago, he missed his high school graduation while doctors waged war on a rare autoimmune thyroid disorder that left him nauseous, fatigued and confined to his home and hospitals.
The war was peppered with smaller battles by physicians studying how to balance treatment for the thyroid disorder with treatment for the Type 1 diabetes Reed had been diagnosed with at age 8.
But Reed was busy waging a fight of his own.
During his sophomore through senior years in high school, the teen managed to keep up with his school work through telephone homeschool courses, maintaining A's and B's. Through the help of a physician, as well as his own research, he found ways to improve his health holistically.
When he enrolled in SPC, he decided to make up for lost time. Reed headed several student clubs and won numerous scholarships and awards, including a $2,500 prize for being named a USA Today All-USA Community College Team member last month. The honor, bestowed upon 20 students annually, also carries a $15,000 textbook scholarship award for the college.
Reed graduated Saturday night with a 3.9 GPA. The honors student plans to go on to medical school to study holistic medicine — a path he says was inspired by his childhood illnesses and recent recovery.
"Without what has happened in my life, I probably would not have been as successful academically," said Reed, a budding research scientist who has his sights set on the biochemistry programs at either Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore or Cornell University in New York. He's already received an acceptance letter from the latter.
He credits his family, college professors and colleagues as the impetus behind his success.
"I don't see myself as an inspiration," he said. "I just think I'm the collective success of all the people who have been inspirational in my life."
Relatives and colleagues say that humble nature is typical of Reed.
Reed's mother, Nora Gindi, recalls how her son, who swam competitively and participated in the crew team his freshman year of high school, tried not to complain too much as his health declined.
It took years of poking and prodding before doctors figured out it was Hashimoto's Thyroiditis making him so sick. (His 15-year-old sister, Victoria, has the same illness, though her case is not as severe.) Gindi is still in awe that the boy with the dark circles under his eyes who couldn't dress himself without having to stop for a nap, didn't dissolve into a depression and turn to drugs or just give up.
Gindi, a 54-year-old optometrist from Egypt who runs a private practice in Clearwater, said she would schedule appointments so she could swoop home midday and rescue Reed from the four-walled prison of his bedroom turned classroom.
"He was a 90-year-old man. He had absolutely no stamina at all and he was exhausted all the time," she said. "I totally worried he wouldn't do well. It was a horrible way to learn."
Nadia Yevstigneyeva, director of SPC's Honors College and Reed's mentor, still recalls meeting Reed when he enrolled in her anatomy and physiology class.
The persistence and critical-thinking skills she observed prompted her to invite the teen to join the honors college. Yevstigneyeva said she's since watched Reed transform into a leader who champions independent research among undergraduates.
The pride in her voice is evident when she describes how Reed's own research on HIV-associated dementia was peer-reviewed and published in a science journal last year.
"I can see a huge future for him," Yevstigneyeva said.
Reed, who's worn an insulin pump for years, has learned to control his autoimmune disease through a "personalized" biomedical/integrative medicine approach, which includes a strict diet. His mother said acupuncture and herbs that provided nutrients were instrumental in beginning to build back his immune system during the three years he was confined to his home.
Running daily is Reed's "new passion."
His mother called Reed's graduation "about the absolute best Mother's Day present I could ever imagine." However, the moment is also bittersweet.
"My baby is leaving me," she said. But "it's good for him to spread his wings and enjoy his life and experience the world. In a way, he's been sheltered. But my faith is strong and I know that there is a purpose there for him to help others and that's what he wants to do."
Reed will be hanging around town for at least for a few months. He plans to continue working as an assistant in the Honors College office.
His advice to others?
"As corny as it sounds," he said, "never give up on what you feel you're most passionate about.
"For me, it was knowing everything happens for a reason. Even though I didn't know the reason, my health has guided me toward what I'll be doing in my life, and that's inspiration in itself."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.