What do you do when you have a pair of medical conditions that make physical activity and being in cold, wet environments difficult, even dangerous for you?
You become a member of the ski patrol.
At least that’s what you do if you’re Erica Friesen.
Living with conditions that have required three open-heart surgeries (the first at six months old), the 2017 Ballenas Secondary School grad class president says she’s now off to the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus in the hope of becoming a pediatric nurse, so she can do what others did for her through many trips to the hospital.
Friesen has Shone’s Complex, which left her with a narrowing in her aorta and aortic valve — through which blood is pumped from the heart to the rest of the body.
“So that resulted in, obviously, a lot of issues with blood flow,” Friesen explained.
“Before my last surgery (at 13 years old) I was pretty burnt out,” she said. “I couldn’t keep up at all. I was having trouble breathing.”
While every one of her surgeries has been major, the last one, using a human donor valve, allowed for her aortic valve to be replaced. As a result, Friesen doesn’t have to take medications anymore, and that she can get into athletics.
In her last year at Ballenas Secondary School, Friesen was one of just three Grade 12s on the senior girls basketball team that nonetheless managed to qualify for the provincial championships, ultimately placing seventh.
She was also a member of the Ballenas track and field team that made it to provincials as well, in addition to being a junior ski patroller at Mount Washington.
But she still has to push harder than others, she said.
“Yeah, it’s a bit harder to keep up with my teammates, obviously, but my cardiologist at Children’s always encouraged me to really be active and don’t let it hold you back, which is why I think I’ve always just tried to work harder and keep up with everyone else.
So it’s been harder, and sometimes it’s a lot harder to catch my breath, but it makes up for just not doing anything.”
Friesen’s second medical condition, Chilblain Lupus, results in painful inflammation in response to repeated exposure to cold air, according to the Mayo Clinic.
That’s a potential problem for Friesen, who is really into skiing. But that hasn’t stopped her, either. Listening to her body, knowing when to stop, and taking medication has made that activity possible, she said. Both pushing through difficulty, and knowing when to stop is something Friesen said she’s had to learn, and something her coaches have been able to help her with.
Since graduating, Friesen said, she’s signed up for the emergency first response team at UBCO, and hopes to join the Big White ski patrol in the future.
Education-wise, she said, she’s planning on being a nurse.
“The nurses at BC Children’s are amazing, and that’s where I want to work,” she said. “I want to be a pediatric nurse.
“They were always so caring and nice and they really made a huge impact on my life. Even just going for appointments, they are always so caring and so… they are really special nurses, there, so that’s where I want to work. I really want to make an impact on the lives of children just like they made an impact on my life.”
Friesen has been helped along in that endeavour through the Coast Capital Savings Credit Union Youth Get It Education Awards ($2,500), which has paid for half of her first year’s tuition, she said.
Though Friesen said she’s never thought of herself as different, she nonetheless has some tips for people going through similar medical problems, including her younger brother, who also has Shone’s.
“You are different than others, but you’re not,” she said. “You’re set back a bit, but that means you have to fight more, and you can still sign up, you can still do all the sports, you just have to modify and watch yourself. But still volunteer, and give back.”