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Busy Lockport native proves illness won't impede her dreams

Briana Hansen is a whirlwind of activity.

The 20-year-old Lockport resident was home recently on a holiday break from LeMoyne College in Syracuse, where she is a biology major studying to become a physician’s assistant.

She was on a school break, but that didn't mean she was off. On breaks and in the summer, Hansen works as a personal care aide for children with disabilities through Orleans/Niagara BOCES. She also took time for family trips skiing and visiting Arizona.

This week it is back to classes at LeMoyne, where she is on the honor roll with distinction and the dean’s list, as well as a student ambassador and tour guide.

College also is where she has learned to independently manage her battle with cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited, chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. In patients with CF, a thick, sticky mucus is produced in certain organs throughout the body, a condition which can cause difficulty breathing and may prevent proper food digestion.

Maintaining her health is her top priority, Hansen said, and she devotes about two hours every day to her treatments.

“Treatments include inhalers, nebulizers, airway clearance therapy, nasal sprays and medicine,” she said. “But I am independently dealing with my own health. My home clinic is in Buffalo, but I’ve found health care providers in Syracuse in case of an emergency or for routine doctor’s appointments.

“Thankfully, my roommates and friends at school have been super supportive in helping me stay healthy,” she noted. “So many advances have been made with CF – I’ve seen it in my own lifetime, with the new treatments they have. It’s awesome!”

Hansen learned in November that she is the recipient of a $25,000 AbbVie CF Scholarship to help defray some of her college costs.

“We were very excited,” she said of her family. “It’s a huge help.”

The AbbVie Scholarship was established 25 years ago in response to the financial burdens many families touched by CF face and to acknowledge the achievements of students with CF. One undergraduate and one graduate award recipient were chosen by the company and through public votes for this special 25th anniversary honor.

For her winning entry, Hansen submitted a short essay and creative short film that outlined a typical day in her life, including exercise (she stands on her head), classes and treatments. In a film clip that lasts under two minutes, this beautiful, blonde young woman comes across as fun-loving, determined, genuine and mature.    

AbbVie is a global biopharmaceutical company based in North Chicago, and the scholarship program has awarded nearly $3 million to approximately 1,000 students so far. More than 30,000 children and adults in the United States have CF, and as of 2013, nearly half of the CF population was 18 or older.

Hansen was chosen for the scholarship because, according to the company, she “demonstrates strength in facing her challenges with CF head-on and serves as an inspiration to others in her community.”

Here's a passage from her essay:

“I want to be a physician’s assistant because I want to help others feel the same way that my care providers have made me feel. Going into the medical field with CF can be risky, because you don’t want to be around germs, and the curriculum is very difficult, but there are lots of opportunities for me to make it work. My care providers have always told me that I could still achieve my dreams and work in the medical field, despite my illness. There is always a way to make it happen.”

Hansen spoke recently about managing her illness; the myriad activities she has participated in despite her illness; the crucial support of her family and friends; and her plans.

Q: How old were you when you were diagnosed?

A: I was 18 months old, so it’s always been a part of my life.

When I was 2, my family starting doing the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Great Strides Walk (the foundation’s largest national fundraiser, with walks in 500 cities across U.S.). We still do it the third Saturday of every May in Lockport.

When I was in fourth grade, my best friend wanted to start a friends team and we called ourselves ‘Briana’s Buddies.’ It’s grown over the years, through high school and college, and more friends have joined. We have a big group each year now that donates money, and those donations are extremely helpful, because without them, we wouldn’t have the research or have made the advances we have made.

Q: Despite your illness, you’ve stayed very active, haven’t you?

A: I started gymnastics when I was 3 or 4, then dancing. I also swam starting when I was about 6 and was on the swim team for my school, DeSales Catholic School, through eighth grade. And, I started cheerleading in seventh grade. I was captain of varsity cheerleading at Sacred Heart Academy (in Buffalo) when I was a senior.

Q: It must have been difficult for your family when you decided to go away to college, wasn’t it?

A: It was very hard on my mother. But my family and friends have been so supportive and encouraging. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them.

I had a cousin at LeMoyne and visited and really liked it. I knew I wanted to go away to school and I liked LeMoyne because it’s a smaller school and they had the 3/2 program, so I’ll get my master’s degree as a physician’s assistant there. My sister, Olivia, is a freshmen at LeMoyne now, too.

Q: Cystic fibrosis is a hereditary disease. Does anyone else in your family have it?

A: No. I’m the first and only one.

Q: How do you juggle a difficult course load, extracurricular activities and devotion to your health care?

A: It’s about time management and balance and having priorities. My health must be my first priority. Luckily, all of my friends are biology or physician’s assistant majors, so we study together and help each other, and it makes it easier. We know how to get our work done and then do something fun after. We like to explore the city of Syracuse or just do on-campus activities.

There are times when I’m sick and I have to say no to things, like when I’m cooped up in the hospital for a few weeks at a time. I know what it’s like to be that low, and that’s what makes me want to take advantage of the good days. This is a progressive disease and so, as I get older, I have to work harder to maintain my health. I have to find time to rest.

Q: How old were you when you decided to go into medicine as a career?

A: I always knew I wanted to do something in the medical field because I grew up in a hospital atmosphere, going to clinics and doctor’s appointments, too, so that influenced me. I started researching career options and shadowing while I was in high school.

I thought physician’s assistant would be a perfect fit for me because I can get into so many different fields. There are a lot of avenues I can explore.

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