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Inspired to Cure Her Own Illness

Ellie Zillfleisch looks forward to the day where she might help others suffering from Chronic Recurrent Multifocal Osteomyelitis.

Published October 22, 2018

A hospital bed might not be where you’d expect to find a career revelation, but that’s where Ellie Zillfleisch, 14, discovered her love for STEM. She grew up in Julatten, a small, rural town in Queensland, Australia, home to just 1,000 people. At 11, doctors diagnosed her with Chronic Recurrent Multifocal Osteomyelitis (CRMO), a disease that develops bone lesions. CRMO affects 1 out of every 1,000,000 people.

“My bones look like honeycombs, which is kind of cool (even though it’s painful),” says Ellie.

There is no standard treatment for CRMO. She started having symptoms when she was eight, and doctors routinely misdiagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and osteomyelitis. Going to hospitals in big cities intimidated Ellie, who was used to her small town life.

After spending a month in a hospital in Brisbane, she started having acute anxiety attacks. Her fear of needles grew when she thought her IVs would fall out. To prove they’d stay in place, doctors let her take off the tape that held the tubes in place. Ellie thinks of this as her first foray into medicine.

To overcome CRMO, Ellie found inspiration from the superhero, Green Arrow, whose superpower involves using trick arrows to stop bad things from happening and who often refers to this Russian proverb: “the shark that doesn’t swim drowns.”

“If I did not beat this disease, it would swallow me,” she told us. “I often thank those doctors in the hospital all those years ago, as now I am hoping to pursue medicine as a career and say, ‘I shattered this disease.’”

Ellie Zillfleisch met her mentor, Courtney Veilleux, at the GSA Summit. 

Despite her chronic disease and small-town roots, she looks for every opportunity to get closer to her dream. Ellie heard about The New York Academy of Sciences’ 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures program from a friend who took part. When she realized a STEM mentor could give her the edge in college and her future career, she applied immediately.

Ellie felt overwhelmed when she started 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures. She wasn’t sure if she would have enough time to participate while staying on track with school and other extracurricular activities. Her mentor reassured her she was capable of completing all her tasks and taught her to balance her busy schedule. Ellie believes she improved her work-life balance by setting manageable goals for each day.

One of the opportunities 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures provided her was attending the Global STEM Alliance Summit in New York City. She received an all-expense paid trip to New York because she was picked as a “Mentee of the Month.” Mentors nominate students for this award for being active and exemplary participants.

Interacting with a global community of students has shown Ellie a world outside her own in Julatten. She even wants to attend college in the United States because she believes there are more opportunities for women in STEM there.

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Academy Staff
This article was written by a member of the Academy staff.

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