Sydney Feinglass first fainted in the summer of 2010, when she was visiting her mother’s family in Honduras.
She had just finished her freshman year in the International Baccalaureate program at Myers Park High School, and there had been signs throughout the school year that something was amiss. Feinglass was plagued with vision problems and migraine headaches.
“I’d had migraines before,” Feinglass said, “”but this was different. It felt like the same one was lasting for months.”
She saw an ENT doctor who put her on antihistamines because her sinuses were inflamed. That helped temporarily, but Feinglass noticed that she felt lightheaded whenever she stood up.
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When she arrived in Honduras, Feinglass was unusually fatigued and found it difficult to get out of bed.
“I knew something was wrong,” Feinglass, now 20, said. “My heart felt heavy.” When she fainted, she called home and asked her parents to set up an appointment with a cardiologist upon her return to Charlotte.
The cardiologist gave Feinglass and her parents, Brian and Luisa, a pamphlet titled “What is POTS?” and told Feinglass she had a lot of the syndrome’s symptoms. Feinglass learned that Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) is an autonomic nervous system disorder that affects autonomic functions, including blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, digestion and breathing, and can lead to fainting upon standing.
A prescription didn’t help.
After a month, she was feeling worse. She had also started her sophomore year at Myers Park High School and had fainted for the first time in school. She experienced other unwelcome symptoms like “brain fog” and remembers failing a pop quiz in her English class when she was unable to recall a single detail of the book she’d read.
At the cardiologist’s suggestion, Feinglass and her parents consulted with a POTS specialist at Duke who confirmed that Feinglass was on the extreme end of the POTS spectrum.
By the second semester of her sophomore year, Feinglass was fainting on a regular basis, several times each week. She was also missing a lot of school because she was confined to bed or visiting doctors.
“It was so frustrating because I love school,” Feinglass said.
She ended up missing half of her high school classes and dropping the IB program her senior year, spending as many days at home as in school, but managed to graduate at the top of her class with a GPA that placed her among the top 10 students in her class.
I need to do what I love to do and manage my care so that I can do that.
Sydney Feinglass, Myers Park graduate
“I had to drop some classes and I missed some deadlines,” Feinglass said, “but all of my teachers were unbelievably understanding and helpful.”
Feinglass is also appreciative of her classmates, who sent home their class notes and assignments and helped her study and catch up. She had to learn to accept this kind of help.
“I hated being such a disruption,” Feinglass said. “But I didn’t lose any friends. It actually strengthened our bonds. They were amazing.”
Feinglass is also appreciative of her parents, who “did whatever they could to keep me safe and happy,” and her younger sister, Brooke, 17.
“I am lucky I was diagnosed so young and so quickly,” Feinglass said.
She knows from the online POTS community that many people with POTS struggle with being believed or having their symptoms misdiagnosed as mental health issues.
“My parents were extremely proactive,” Feinglass said. “They got me the help I needed right away.”
When applying to colleges, Feinglass applied to schools within driving distance so that her parents could get to her in a hurry if necessary, and all of the schools were vetted for how well they accommodated students with disabilities.
Wake Forest University topped the list as far as its medical accommodations, and when Feinglass was offered a full ride as a Gordon scholarship recipient, she accepted.
She touts Wake Forest’s stellar medical accommodations with allowing her to, as she put it, “have a seamless transition from patient to student.”
Feinglass is spending this semester in Vienna with Wake Forest students and professors, a trip that she seemed unlikely to be able to make when she was first diagnosed.
“My parents were nervous and I have my concerns, too,” Feinglass said. “But I need to do it … I’m very independent.”
She is not letting her POTS symptoms, which she hopes to outgrow in the next decade, define her life.
“I need to do what I love to do and manage my care so that I can do that,” Feinglass said. “If I’m not doing what I love to do, then what’s the point?”
Katya Lezin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.