It’s not altogether surprising that Priyanka Arunkumar is pondering a future in medicine. After her graduation from Saratoga High School, Priyanka may well follow in the footsteps of her brother, Amit (class of 2007), and attend UC-Berkeley and then medical school at UCSF.
But Priyanka’s career trajectory has possibly been set less by sibling admiration than her own experiences: In the past couple of years, she’s spent a lot of time around doctors.
On a trip to Hawaii during the holidays in her junior year, Priyanka decided to take a surfing lesson. At one point another surfer aimed his board in her direction, cutting her off. She leapt from her own board, and with arms and legs flailing, Priyanka landed knee-first … on the only piece of coral anywhere in the area.
In the first few minutes after making contact with the submerged flora, Priyanka was unaware of any major discomfort. “I thought I had a little cut, and that something was stuck on my leg,” she recalls. “I looked down and realized that the coral had ripped out a big piece of flesh above my knee; I could see down to the bone.”
The injured teen began screaming for Amit, who was surfing nearby. “He said, ‘Priyanka, stop complaining,’ ” she says, now able to laugh about the incident. “Then he saw the blood and realized a piece of my leg was missing and that we needed to get to a doctor immediately.”
The siblings flagged down a ride to a hospital, which luckily was
very close by. But upon their arrival, an overwhelmed admitting nurse advised them that children with colds were consuming all available medical resources. Priyanka and her bleeding leg would need to be treated at a neighboring facility, some 45 minutes away.
“After that, another nurse said I was ruining the carpet with my blood, and told me to sit in the hallway. That’s where a doctor happened to find me. He said he would move his schedule back so he could take care of me right away.”
Priyanka’s gaping wound was cleaned out and stitched up. X-rays showed that bits of coral were still embedded in her leg; it would take 12 days or so for full healing. Two days later the site became infected, requiring additional invasive treatment. By the time the varsity tennis team member returned to school, she did so in the wheelchair that would be her source of transportation for nearly four months. Physical therapy followed to strengthen her injured right leg and help her relearn to walk.
Upon her return to school, Priyanka says she found a very sympathetic student body. “Everyone was pretty shocked to see me in the chair. I think the entire campus knew who I was at that point. They were all pretty nice about it, and helped push me when I needed help. Someone nicknamed me ‘Shark Bait’ because the scar on my leg looks like a shark bite.”
Despite her medical mishap, Priyanka managed to complete her junior year with high marks. Her senior year began relatively uneventfully: While enjoying her role as a producer/editor on the Falcons’ multimedia staff, Priyanka successfully juggled a full load of AP classes. The idea of ever missing a day of school was inconceivable.
But one day she was forced to. “I felt really tired. I thought, ‘OK, I’ll stay home for a day.’ Then it got worse and worse. I had fevers and joint pain, and I was constantly exhausted.” In all, while doctors ran a battery of tests, Priyanka missed almost five months of classes. Worse still, deadlines were looming for college entrance applications.
Priyanka was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and reactive arthritis, both of which are extremely painful and debilitating. “The arthritis is supposed to be temporary … the fibromyalgia, not so much,” she notes. Still, although she missed most of her first semester, and endured the profound discomfort that continues to this day, Priyanka managed to earn A’s in most of her classes.
“At the end of the semester I took two days per class, learned the material and took the final, and then made up all of the work I’d missed. I also got extensions from all of the colleges I applied to, so I could send in my mid-year reports late.”
Tony Palma, who teaches multimedia production in Saratoga High School’s media arts program, says Priyanka’s attitude has been nothing short of remarkable, given the challenges she’s faced in the past two years.
“Priyanka is such a wonderful and positive person,” Palma says. “She always has a smile on her face and is willing to put in the time and effort necessary to get the job done. She is well respected by her peers, and they follow the example she sets for them.
“Priyanka is always willing to lend a hand and help with class projects, activities and reports. She faces setbacks head on and cares about the work she produces. I have great respect and admiration for Priyanka, and I know she will do great things with her life.”
With her acceptance into UC-Berkeley assured, Priyanka purposefully slowed her pace during her final semester (she was also accepted at Cornell, but ultimately deemed New York “too cold” for her tastes).
“Cal has some disability programs and some accommodations with housing, so I’ve signed up for those,” she says. “And I’m trying to break the cycle of the fibromyalgia. Lack of sleep is one of the triggers, and it’s also one of the symptoms. Having an unhealthy diet can set it off as well. So I’m really just trying to take it easy and take care of myself these days.”
Now that her brother is taking classes at UCSF Medical School, Priyanka is giving serious thought to a similar course of study. “I’m not exactly sure; I’ll either go to med school or go into research,” she says. “I’ll see how UCSF treats Amit, then I’ll make my decision.”
Wherever she ends up, though, it most likely will not be atop a surfboard.