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Jessica Young has never listened to the odds.

“You see people talk about the dropout rate for high school, about the statistics,” the Skyview High senior said.

She knew that the health problems she battled — including Crohn’s disease and flu-related heart attack — were rare, but she never wanted them to be an excuse. 

Instead, she’s racked up college credits on her way to graduation, and plans to study to become a respiratory therapist.

“I don’t want to be just my disease,” she said.

Early life

Young remembers watching her mother struggle with Crohn’s, a digestive tract disease. Her parents divorced and her father had custody.

“There was so much going against her,” Young said. “My mom definitely let it control her and define her. … I always told myself, I never want to do that.”

Her mother died in 2011 after remarrying and despite getting a better handle on her health.

A couple years later Young met Tanya Gunkel, who works with TRIO, a federal student support program for disadvantaged students. Gunkel saw early that Young was different from her peers.

“She had to be more responsible and more mature than other people at an early age,” Gunkel said. “It’s not something that her family expected of her by any means. It’s just something that she took on.”

Young’s academic drive was also apparent. But as high school started offering more opportunities, like college credit courses, health problems started. 

During her freshman year, Young started showing symptoms of an undiagnosed disease. She went through an alphabet of medical tests and procedures, but a clear diagnosis was elusive.

“She has been through so many tests and so many different diagnoses,” Gunkel said. “She always wants to know what the answer is.”

Eventually her diagnosis turned to Crohn's, but managing the disease is challenging. There's no cure, but treatments can help control the effects of the disease. 

Young is still experimenting with medications — “just trying to figure out what works.”

Kevin Brooke, a Skyview English teacher, saw the process unfold.

“She was in pain,” he said. “(But) she did not want to be pitied.”

Young specifically told school officials she didn’t want an official accommodation plan for her illness.

“I didn’t want people to be like, ‘oh, this is another sick girl,’” she said.

Balance

Brooke saw her struggle to balance the realities of her illness with her inherent motivation. Missing school would lead to assignment backlogs, and especially combined with an ambitious schedule, it could get overwhelming.

Young’s heart attack, which occurred when the flu virus affected her heart, was a jarring experience compared to the slow progression of Crohn's.

“Any of those life decisions … I was changing everything,” Young said. “Coming to school with all of that was so intense.”

During the second semester of this school year Young pared down her courses, creating a more manageable workload that also allowed her to focus on her health.

“I think she’s kind of evolved and grown through this,” Brooke said.

Young credits TRIO and its sister program, Upward Bound, for helping to instill goals of attending college, but also for normalizing those goals. She participated in summer programs at Montana State University Billings.

“The college was home, because I was always there,” she said. She took a pair of University Connections courses, where high school students actually attend class at a college. 

Young wanted to become a surgeon for years, but pivoted after job shadowing a respiratory therapist as part of the medical careers class at the Career Center. She’s eyeing a two-year program at Missoula College, then plans to stay in Montana for a few years before exploring other states.

Along the way, she knows she still has places to grow, like balancing her drive for success with being comfortable talking with her peers about her health problems.

“Nobody ever really knew why I was missing so much school,” she said. When she was more open about it, she got more “weird looks.”

“It’s something that I’ve still got to work with,” she said.

Those who know her won’t bet against her finding a way.

“I think that you can never count Jessica Young out,” Gunkel said. “She persists.”

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.