By Becca Rabizadeh, MPH candidate, a research volunteer and patient advocate in Lurie Children’s Department of Adolescent Medicine
Becca Rabizadeh underwent several surgeries as a child and adolescent at Lurie Children's to treat a rare urological condition called bladder exstrophy. Today, she is a volunteer researcher at Lurie Children's committed to advancing treatment for urological disorders in children. Here, she shares her story.
I was a precocious college freshman in 2017 when I composed an unsolicited email to Arun Sharma, PhD, Director of Pediatric Urologic Regenerative Medicine Research at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. I sought an undergraduate research internship in his lab, and I made clear to him that my interest in his lab was largely personal, and an integral part of my identity.
Here’s what I told him: I decided as an adolescent I wanted go into medicine – after I became my own first patient. I was born with bladder exstrophy, a rare congenital condition in which the bladder develops outside of the body. Thanks to care from Lurie Children's pediatric urologist Dr. Max Maizels, who performed my initial exstrophy repair procedure, I still had a “typical” childhood, and was able to be a kid. Then, immediately after my 12th birthday, I started a series of reconstructive and revisionary surgeries with Lurie Children’s Urology surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Yerkes, one of the people in the world I admire most!
As I grew older, I realized my experience gave me a unique perspective and understanding of the importance of urological health – and I was passionate about putting it to good use. I spent my junior and senior years of high school doing research on the effects of endocrine disruptors on bladder exstrophy through our Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program. I worked with pediatric and adult urologists to learn about embryology, worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to obtain data about the incidence of bladder exstrophy and presented my work at the state science fair. In my note to Dr. Sharma, I told him that as a member of his lab, I would be able to continue doing research on bladders, which is the part of human anatomy and physiology I am most passionate about.
Ultimately, Dr. Sharma took a chance on me, offering me an internship the summer after my freshman year of college. Since 2017, I’ve had the privilege of working with his lab on projects involving tissue regeneration for purposes of the urinary tract and various inflammatory conditions. I have also been part of research that reimagines the way we treat Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis (IBD).
The more time I spend with Dr. Sharma as my mentor, the more I understand that I am not the exception, I am the rule. Dr. Sharma is in contact with folks from all over the world who have contacted him about his work in relation to their own medical needs. Working in the lab, I have gained knowledge that helped me in my chemistry and biochemistry labs in college, and most importantly, a peek into the future of urology and medicine overall.
Now, I recognize even more deeply the urgent need for urological care that gives a child the best chance at optimal quality of life. In terms of medical specialties, urology and gastroenterology are not always considered the most glamorous fields. Still, I’d encourage people to think about the number of times a day they mindlessly use the bathroom and don’t give it a second thought. These bodily functions are often taken for granted because they’re so routine. Every child deserves to feel that same peace of mind when doing something as basic as using the bathroom, and it’s professionals like Dr. Sharma who study and research the best possible treatments who help children achieve this.
My main goal in my work in research, and my ultimate goal to become a pediatric urologist, is to ensure that no child has to be hyper-aware of their anatomy so early on in life, so concerned about finding a bathroom when they enter a new classroom, or feel self-conscious about scars and being continent. Bladder tissue engineering, a pursuit of Dr. Sharma’s lab, is likely the only way to reach that goal. Non-invasively regenerating a child’s own tissue, whether that be bladder tissue, intestinal tissue, or a myriad of other tissues and wounds, would be life-changing for so many kids (and adults), including me. I hope that sharing my story can act as a catalyst to help others recognize the need to do more for this pediatric population, and make sure every kid gets to be a kid.
Becca has created an online fundraising page through Lurie Children’s where 100% of proceeds will benefit the tissue regeneration work being done in Dr. Sharma’s lab. Contribute to advancing urological medicine for children by visiting the fundraising page at http://foundation.luriechildrens.org/goto/SharmaLab.