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06/05/2014 | Created by Darla Martin Tucker

La Sierra University’s June 15 graduation will be a day of joyous celebration for many, and for one senior who has battled virus-linked blindness and debilitating nerve pain, it is a miraculous milestone.

Senior biology major Caitlin Hutchinson, with the help of family, friends, university professors and staff, pushed past big challenges to reach graduation day. (Photo by Natan Vigna)

Senior biology major and Riverside native Caitlin Hutchinson was the recipient this spring of La Sierra’s College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Award. She is credited with amassing significant scientific research that resulted in three posters at scientific conferences, and with leading the Phi Omega Chapter of Tri-beta, the national biological honor society. She also organized an annual canned food drive to benefit Helping Hands Pantry, a nonprofit in San Bernardino that aids the homeless and low-income populations, and this year she started a ‘wish basket’ drive for the Ronald McDonald House in Loma Linda.

Hutchinson has achieved all this despite intermittent wheel chair confinement due to nerve pain, complete blindness her freshman year and only partial eyesight the remaining years of her academic career. Only a full healing will allow her to engage in such daily activities as driving a car, or to pursue her dream of becoming a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. Otherwise, she will pursue a doctoral degree in biology. “I’m still working on getting the rest of my sight back,” she said.

On June 15 Hutchinson will receive her Bachelor of Science degree, one of 367 students graduating from La Sierra University during commencement on the university’s Founders’ Green. The ceremony begins at 8 a.m.

She struggles to describe the meaning and emotional intensity associated with the day, in part because as Hutchinson has faced down her own health issues, her mother, Julie Hutchinson, has battled cancer and dealt with medical problems stemming from a heart transplant she endured when Hutchinson was 2 ½ years old. “It’s very difficult to explain how important it is for me,” Hutchinson said. “I can’t even put that into words.”

Two years ago her mother’s cancer went into remission and Hutchinson has achieved her dream of college against great odds.  She, her mother and father Tom Hutchinson are celebrating with an Alaskan cruise at the summer’s end, a first family vacation in seven years. “It’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” said Hutchinson.

Hutchinson uses software that converts text to speech and for her classes memorized what she heard, imagining graphs, flowcharts and other illustrations. She made it through with the help of “a lot of good Samaritans,” she said, namely her family, friends and university faculty and staff. Her mother drove her to class, assisted in the classroom and helped with reading material. Her father drove her to events and classes in the evenings. Biology professors Natasha Dean, her advisor, Eugene Joseph, her gross anatomy professor, and biology Chair John Perumal worked closely with Hutchinson. Perumal, whom she described as her mentor, made certain she could complete her class assignments, Hutchinson said. “He’s gone out of his way to make sure I got what I needed.”

Her research has included DNA analysis, molecular systematics and phylogenetics to classify or reclassify biological specimens.  She learned gel electrophoresis, DNA extraction from tissue using magnetic beads and other processes, and dissected animals and cadavers. She warned her lab dissection partners, “I know where my hands are, but I don’t know where your hands are.”

Back in 2007, Hutchinson was a soccer-playing sophomore at Woodcrest Christian High School in Riverside. Around the end of March that year she participated in a mission trip to Yuma, Ariz. organized through her family’s church, Magnolia Presbyterian, Riverside’s oldest church. When she returned, Hutchinson began experiencing severe headaches which doctors eventually diagnosed as a rare virus, most likely picked up from an insect bite during the trip. 

Headaches evolved into extreme nerve pain in her limbs from reflex sympathetic dystrophy, and a breath-inhibiting mass developed in her chest only to mysteriously disappear just prior to surgery. But the nerve pain continued, confining Hutchinson to a wheelchair the entirety of her junior year of high school. A major surgery relieved the pain and allowed Hutchinson to walk. Over that summer, however, the blindness set in. “By Christmas my sight was completely gone,” said Hutchinson. The RSD had spread, affecting the optic nerve.

Hutchinson completed her high school studies by learning Braille and using audio textbooks. Her friends took notes for her and her mom quizzed her on tests and assignments. In 2009 the city of Riverside acknowledged Hutchinson’s achievements and inspirational example with the ‘Most Remarkable Teen, Courage to Overcome-Spirit of Hope’ award. For her high school graduation that year, she was determined to walk across the stage on her own to receive her diploma, a feat which required practice beforehand to memorize the number of steps required.

College presented a whole new set of challenges and Hutchinson was uncertain she would be able to continue her education. “There were quite a few times where I thought, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ and my parents said, ‘no, if you want to go to college we will make sure it happens,’” she said.

Hutchinson chose La Sierra for its close proximity to her Riverside home, for its Christian values and willingness to accommodate her health issues. “They were so willing to work with,” she said. “With [other] science programs, you don’t get that so much.” La Sierra’s Office of Disability Services set her up with a campus guide, audio textbooks, a screen reader laptop, and arrangements to take tests orally. She spent time navigating every walkway and building. “As I got to know the community, I found that everyone was really helpful and accommodating,” she said.

She began meeting with Campus Chaplain Sam Leonor and shared her story. “Pastor Sam listened to me, prayed with me, and encouraged me throughout our visits,” she said.

And she kept a small piece of paper with her on which was written in Braille, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” 

Hutchinson’s vision gradually improved following experimental nerve block and hyperbaric treatments the summer after her freshman year of college. “I still remember the morning that summer when the treatment began to take effect,” she said. She got dressed and passed by the mirror in her room. She was startled to realize she could see a faint image of herself. “I couldn’t see myself in detail, but I could see shapes and colors, and I got so excited. I started crying and ran down the hall yelling for my mom.”

While she can now identify familiar faces and get around on her own, the recovery process for her sight has plateaued, she said. She is continuing hyperbaric treatments in an oxygen chamber to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood toward healing both the nerve disease and her vision. 

Throughout her ordeal, Hutchinson has maintained a faith that sustains her journey going forward. “As for my family and myself, we would not have gotten through this without our faith,” she said. “I can say that to the best of my ability, I will continue the journey with God’s help. He has carried me thus far by faith.”