More than one doctor had told Blaire Strohn to quit school. As a teenager, she’d already lived longer than many others with the serious progressive genetic disease, cystic fibrosis, that has left her with the use of only a fifth of her lungs.
“I was like, that’s not me, I’m not a quitter,” Strohn says of her decision to continue her education. “I’m a fighter.”
Fortunately, when she moved from Hollister to Fresno four years ago to attend Fresno State, she found a doctor who wanted her to graduate. His name is Dr. David Lee, center director of the cystic fibrosis program through UCSF Fresno, and he thinks of Strohn like a daughter.
On Friday afternoon, he’ll be at her Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology graduation ceremony, trying not to cry. Strohn’s receiving her bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications.
“Her graduation means the world to me here,” Lee says, “because it takes her hours every day just to get out through the front door. … I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Cystic fibrosis makes the body’s secretions very thick, Lee explains, and progressively, that leads to inflammation, scarring, infection and declined lung capacity.
It’s basically like breathing through a straw pretty much on an everyday basis.
Blaire Strohn about having cystic fibrosis
Strohn has attended Fresno State classes painstakingly planned around a rigorous daily medical routine including being fed through a tube, taking lots of pills, breathing treatments, and sometimes medicine administered through an IV. The breathing treatments are administered several times a day by connecting her to a machine that shakes her tiny frame, dislodging secretions in her lungs that make it hard for her to breathe. The treatment is accompanied by a mist that she breathes in through a hose, which helps open her lungs and sometimes includes liquid medicine.
“I may look normal on the outside, but on the inside, I’m not,” Strohn explains, stopping to cough. “It’s basically like breathing through a straw pretty much on an everyday basis.”
She administers most of her medical treatments herself so she can continue to go to class – something that’s not normally possible for cystic fibrosis patients. Lee has helped make it happen. Traditionally, Lee says, most doctors of cystic fibrosis patients feel more comfortable having their patients in the hospital for prolonged periods of time – “and we’re not talking days, we’re talking weeks.”
Lee didn’t want that for Strohn.
All I wanted for her was to accomplish everything she wanted.
Dr. David Lee
“I realized a long time ago that if I was just focused on the medical stuff, I would have accomplished very little,” Lee says. “I wanted her to have a full social life, family life, so I needed to make sure I met her parents, met her friends whenever they came to visit them in the hospital, so I became part of her extended family, and with that kind of trust, she really flipped a switch.”
Strohn has Lee’s cell phone number and is in regular contact with him about her treatments and health.
Last year, Strohn’s lung capacity declined to the point where she became eligible to be put on a waiting list to receive new lungs, but she decided to wait to list herself until she graduated from Fresno State. Once her name is on the list, it still could be months or years before a transplant is available.
Waiting to put herself on the transplant list is definitely a risk, but one Strohn is willing to take.
On one terrifying day last year when Lee met her in the hospital parking lot, she was blue from a lack of oxygen. He rushed her into an intensive care unit bed and came close to placing her on life support. Through the terror, he recalls her as being amazingly calm and full of “poise and grace.”
Dr. Lee believed in me and took every road possible to get me to this point where I am today.
She cultivated a lot of that strength in childhood as a fourth-generation rancher, participating in goat tying and breakaway roping rodeo competitions, and helping her dad on cattle runs. Of herding cattle, she says nonchalantly, “Yeah, we did some crazy stuff.”
Her lung function was better at that time and didn’t greatly decline until she was in college.
“Twenty years ago, the median life expectancy was only 20 years old,” Lee says of cystic fibrosis patients. “Today, it’s 40.”
Strohn’s next goal is earning her master’s degree, which she’ll start working toward in the fall via online classes. She’s immensely grateful for Lee’s support.
“He’s been a great role model and mentor. … Dr. Lee believed in me and took every road possible to get me to this point where I am today,” Strohn says.
Her outlook has also helped. She describes herself as “really self-driven.”
She will be the first member of her family to graduate from a four-year university.
For others who are struggling, she has this message: “Just don’t give up, keep fighting.”
2017 Undergraduate Deans’ Medalists
Kendall Bailey of Shafter, Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology
Christina Beaulieu of Kerman, College of Health and Human Services
Eric Calderon-Phangrath of Fresno, Kremen School of Education and Human Development
Cathleen Fagundes of Fresno, College of Arts and Humanities
Alexandra Gallo of Hollister, College of Social Science
Caden Jones of Fresno, Craig School of Business
Annabelle Lolinco of Fresno, College of Science and Mathematics
Timothy M. Ryan of Fresno, Student Affairs and Enrollment Management
Shervin Zoghi of Fresno, Lyles College of Engineering
10 a.m. Saturday, May 20
Save Mart Center
Doors open at 8 a.m., procession begins at 9:30 a.m.