More than a decade after undergoing lifesaving brain surgery at the age of 12, Madison Mehlferber was determined to learn more about what caused her illness and, ultimately, how to treat and prevent it.
A native of Silver Spring, Maryland, Mehlferber was diagnosed in 2007 with an astrocytoma, an aggressive tumor that had developed within her brain stem. She was forced to undergo an 11-hour surgery at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and as a result, was left without the ability to walk, talk, eat or breathe on her own.
While the surgery successfully removed the tumor, it led to a series of post-surgical struggles.
“I spent eight weeks in intensive care,” she recounted, “where I experienced extreme complications. As a result of the medication used to help with the post-operative brain swelling, my duodenum perforated, which immediately necessitated another surgery. Due to my inability to eat on my own, I had to have a gastrostomy tube inserted into my stomach while I also received a tracheostomy because I was unable to breathe on my own.”
In all, Mehlferber would endure seven additional surgeries related to complications from the brain tumor resection. She was then transferred to a rehab unit to endure five weeks of arduous physical therapy, learning to walk and regain all of her other motor skills that were lost as a result of surgery. Following her discharge, the therapy would continue, and she eventually caught up on the schoolwork she missed over the course of her ordeal.
“I was able to stay on track at school as my teachers home-schooled me during the summer while I was doing home rehab,” she said. “The process was extremely tiring and frustrating, but I wanted nothing more than to regain normalcy, so I persevered. None of this would have been possible without the undying love and support from my parents and family each step of the way.”
Mehlferber would excel in the classroom at Walter Johnson High School, and when the time came to pick a college, her childhood ordeal played a big role.
“After my experience in the hospital and with the medical field,” she said, “I knew I wanted to be a part of the scientific world in some way. I wanted to help find a cure to diseases like the one I endured as a kid. I know that I’m extremely fortunate to be where I am and to have regained normalcy in my life, but I know that many are not as fortunate. Some of the friends I made while in the hospital are still fighting their everyday battles. I wanted to ensure that I could one day be in a field where I could help to understand these diseases and help to make an impact for others.”
She knew that such a field would be scientific in nature. Having initially considered biology, Mehlferber felt that with the rising prevalence of technology, a basic biology degree would not suffice. After researching bioinformatics, she discovered that Saint Vincent College was one of fewer than 50 undergraduate institutions in the U.S. to offer the degree.
“I took a chance with the thought that technology in science wouldn’t be disappearing any time soon,” she said, “and put my deposit down for the most amazing four years of my life on this wonderful campus.”
As a student at Saint Vincent, Mehlferber was a perennial dean’s list selection and earned induction into the Tri-Beta biological honor society. When it came time to pick a subject on which to do her senior capstone project, she hardly blinked an eye.
“It was a no-brainer, pun intended,” she said. “When I was posed with the issue of deciding what my senior research would be on, I felt that it would be a very rewarding and interesting experience for me to investigate the tumor.”
Driven by her curiosity in the factors that caused the formation of her tumor, as well as the unsatisfactory answers provided to her by her doctors, Mehlferber performed a year’s worth of research, specifically on the neurofibromatosis type 1 protein, which has been linked to the development of the astrocytoma in juveniles.
“I already had a good understanding of the background associated with the tumor and the diagnostic mechanisms,” she said. “However, learning about the genetic alterations was a very interesting, complex and informative task. I was able to learn how extremely nuanced and difficult it is to pinpoint the development pathway of this tumor. There is still a lot about the tumor and this area of research to be understood, and it was an amazing experience to learn more about it for my project.”
The extensive research project capped off a memorable four years for Mehlferber, who graduated with honors and was awarded the Saint Vincent College Award for Excellence in Bioinformatics.
“The community aspect of Saint Vincent College has been absolutely phenomenal,” she said. “I have the most supportive and amazing friend group I could ever have asked for. For each and every friendship I have made at SVC, I am thankful.”
Mehlferber also spoke highly of the Saint Vincent College faculty.
“I have to thank the faculty for its support, knowledge and expertise over the years,” she said, specifically mentioning bioinformatics associate professor Dr. Michael Sierk, associate biology professors Dr. Bruce Bethke and Br. Albert Gahr, O.S.B., and Bruce Antkowiak, chair of the Saint Vincent Criminology, Law and Society department.
Mehlferber will now return to the Washington, D.C., region, where she will seek employment in bioinformatics or related research, saying, ”I know in the future I want to be a part of the research world, but at the moment, I’m not sure which specific direction or career opportunities to follow.”
After overcoming such adversity during her childhood to excel in college, Mehlferber is sure of one thing, however. “I know I am excited to go out into the world and find the next adventures to become a part of.”
PHOTO: Madison Mehlferber is presented the Award for Academic Excellence in Bioinformatics by Saint Vincent College President Br. Norman W. Hipps, O.S.B.
YouTube: Saint Vincent College