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From childhood adversity comes a healing future

The letter, meticulous in penmanship and thought, made its way through the Pasco Education Foundation. Somebody forwarded it to me with a comment: "This is why we do what we do.''

Stephanie Holz, 17, wrote the letter in a half-hour. "Words come easy,'' she said, "when they come from the heart.''

So many times since her body broke down in her first year of school, Stephanie could barely hold a pen, much less guide it to such a mature expression of gratitude and hope. In 50 lines to her benefactors, she mentioned her fragile health, poverty and broken home only as a setup to what she said were the more important declarations. She celebrated a newfound self-confidence and pledged to make the best use of their generous gift: a college education she had never dreamed possible. She dedicated herself to finding a cure for her disease and others.

"I was only able to accomplish so much in a single year thanks to you . . . for giving me the courage, support and opportunities to open so many doors in my life,'' she wrote. "You should feel proud of your monumental impact on society!''

A few weeks ago, Stephanie graduated cum laude from Pasco High School in Dade City. She earned acclaim as the school's top anatomy and physiology student. Before she could receive her diploma and medallions, the principal had to give her a boost to the first step leading to the stage.

Stephanie has dermatomyositis, which means her immune system attacks blood vessels throughout her body, causing inflammation and pain. She has come a long way since diagnosed at age 5 but remains physically weak, unable to develop muscle mass. "Look at these toothpicks,'' she says, dangling skinny arms that get cold even when everyone else is warm.

She seemed perfectly healthy until that first week of kindergarten at San Antonio Elementary. She sat cross-legged on the classroom floor and when it came time to get up, she couldn't. "My legs felt fine,'' she recalled, "but imagine getting stuck in a pretzel shape.''

Her mother, Patricia, took her to a specialist at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. It took just seven days to get the diagnosis. Only two children per million contract this disease in the United States, which Stephanie says "makes me special.''

She may joke about it now, but the last 12 years have been brutal. In the early going, she tried to gut it out and go to school but missed so many days that state child welfare inspectors came knocking on her mother's door at their tiny government-subsidized apartment.

"They thought she was truant,'' said Patricia, who divorced her husband when Stephanie was 9 months old. "Some of the neighbors saw her and reported me.''

When she did manage to get to school, Stephanie hated it. She fell behind in lessons because she missed so many days. Medicine stunted her growth (she's 4 feet 11) and made her gain weight. "Kids called me fat.''

The school district provided Stephanie in-home teachers. She made straight A's. But by her junior year, "I felt like a cavewoman in this little apartment. The walls were closing in on me.''

She decided to try attending school again, but this time with a boost in attitude she got from a man she calls her "angel'' — Rudy DiCristina. He operated the MRI scanner at Pasco Regional Medical Center and found in Stephanie a patient eager and able to absorb all the scientific intricacies. "She was brilliant,'' said DiCristina, who now works for a doctor in St. Petersburg. "I don't know that I've ever met a student so dedicated to learning.''

The girl who once missed 63 of 180 days of school as an eighth-grader missed only four days as a junior. Even when she was sick, "she dragged herself to the school bus,'' her mother said. She took honors courses, made straight A's. Her disability and poverty made her a perfect candidate for Take Stock in Children, a public-private partnership that provides mentors and in-state college scholarships to low-income students.

Once she entered the program, which is administered through the Pasco Education Foundation, she began to realize the possibility of attending college. Without financial assistance, that wouldn't be possible. She survives on Social Security disability and Medicaid.

Stephanie will start Aug. 21 at Saint Leo University as a Chair Scholar, part of a national philanthropy program founded by Dr. Hugo Keim, the former chief of spinal surgery at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. Saint Leo will provide the difference in tuition and other expenses. She plans to major in biology and minor in chemistry.

Keim, who moved to Tampa in 1995, partnered with Take Stock in Children to qualify for matching state dollars. The ChairScholars Foundation has awarded more than 300 similar scholarships to high school students with disabilities. Take Stock in Children helped 39 Pasco seniors this year — all of which prompted this question from Stephanie:

"Why write about me?''

My answer: She personifies what Take Stock in Children seeks to do and gives me an opportunity to highlight the generosity of a doctor who appreciates his good fortune and is willing to share it with young people who have the potential to save the world.

Besides, she wrote a great letter.