Senior Spotlight: Dishita Agarwal of Early College at Guilford

May 22, 2024 - The cardioverter defibrillator that keeps Dishita Agarwal alive is implanted under the skin just below her collarbone. It’s flat, feather-light, no bigger than a stopwatch.

She’s had inside her what’s known as an ICD since she was 2. That’s when she had her first episode with an abnormality of the heart’s electrical system. The abnormality causes fast, chaotic heartbeats that can result in seizures, fainting spells and even death in young people.

Since receiving her ICD, Dishita has had six more episodes caused by a condition known as Long QT Syndrome. The ICD monitors Dishita’s heart and resets any abnormal heartbeat with a shock of energy that feels like a kick in the chest.

Think of her ICD as a guardian angel. Every time Dishita has an episode, her ICD saves her life.

Dishita, though, doesn’t see her condition as a disability. She sees it as her superpower.

Her condition has helped her become an advocate on both the state and national level. She’s spoken at conferences and advises medical professionals at least three times her age by telling her story to raise awareness and help improve pediatric healthcare.

Dishita won’t stop when she graduates this morning from the Early College at Guilford. She will attend Duke University and plans to double major in global health and computer science.

She then will set her sights, at least right now, on working for an organization like the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help young people facing scary medical conditions live a better life.

She has. But it took some work.

 

From Patient to Advocate

Dishita went six years without a cardiac arrest. She was careful and episode-free. Then came a Wednesday in November 2021. She was a sophomore at the Early College at Guilford, enjoying her time with friends when she went to the gym and got on a stationary bike.

She doesn’t remember anything else.

Dishita fell and suffered a traumatic brain injury and spent four days recovering at Duke Children’s Hospital. For the next five months, she battled numbness, migraines, and fatigue, all while balancing six AP classes and multiple extracurriculars.

As she spent her lunch breaks and school evenings trying to stay afloat, she grew frustrated over the school system’s inability to support her without excessive explanation of her condition.

She sensed that she was expected to recover in two weeks, not a few months, and it seemed difficult for others to believe the pain they could not see. That frustrated Dishita even more.

So, she wrote.

She posted her thoughts on Instagram to her 700 followers. In her post, she thanked the teachers, the parents and the students who supported her and then ended her post with her own call to action.

“I hope I can use my pain to shed light on how combative the school system is towards people with medical conditions,” she wrote.

Her post received 35 comments, and she heard from people just like her. They, too, wrote that they felt “left behind.” Dishita went back and forth with the people who responded. From what she read, she realized she was far from alone.

“If you ever find yourself in the same situation, please reach out to me, and I’ll be more than happy to help,” she wrote. “Remember, you don’t ever have to let your illnesses get in the way of you reaching your dreams. You are allowed to fight as hard as you need to … and you are allowed to take as much rest as you need to.” 

Dishita saw firsthand the impact of what she wrote –– and what she needed to do. For the first time, she saw herself as an advocate who could help others just like her.

She was just 15.

 

The Impact of Dishita’s Story

Dishita is now 18. Consider what she’s done.

She’s a youth health advisor for North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services. With the help of her story and the response from her Instagram post, she started what she calls the Empowering North Carolina Disabled Students Project.

She’s launched a statewide educational equity effort by assessing the health needs of more than 100 students across North Carolina. She wanted to look for ways to support them and improve the care they receive in the schools they attend.

She’s a member of an advisory committee with CYSHCNet, or the Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs National Research Network. She’s the only teenager in a network of more than 100 professionals working to improve pediatric healthcare.

Last summer, she worked as a public health intern at Duke University School of Medicine. She focused primarily on infusing what she calls “cultural humility” into every pediatric case doctors treat.

She analyzed nearly 200 clinical studies to create more cultural humility guidelines, and worked with Harvard, Boston Children’s Hospital and Duke Children’s Hospital to implement those guidelines. She presented her findings at two conferences in North Carolina.

Dishita was far from done.

Last May, she spoke at a youth town hall sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She spoke about the lived experiences of children and teenagers like herself with chronic illnesses.

She then spoke at Johns Hopkins Global Health Leaders Conference. She was one of 40 international students chosen to speak out of a field of near 1,000 students who applied. She titled her presentation, “Unveiling the Invisible: Tackling Pediatric Heart Disease.”

“It was crazy,” says Dishita of her busy summer. “But I felt this largest sense of authority because I knew something most people don’t, and I wanted to be as blunt and open as possible because I knew these opportunities might not come again.”

 

‘I Am Unstoppable’

Today, Dishita feels at ease with her life.

She’s a DJ at WQFS (90.9), Guilford College’s radio station. Her show runs from 10 a.m. to noon every Thursday. Her show’s name? “To Be 18.”

She paints, writes poetry, and finds joy in sharing her daily innermost thoughts with 22 of her female classmates in a private space on Instagram. Through this space, called her “Close Friends,” Dishita says she gets to process her world first, “free from perfection and permanence” while also celebrating girlhood.

She is the founder and president of ECG’s Model United Nations and the vice president for the school’s Interact Club, which organizes charity events to raise money for non-profits and coordinates service projects with local organizations.

Dishita is also the school’s captain for two of three teams participating in its Science Olympiad, and she has created a mentorship program to help more than two dozen middle school students get interested in science so they can compete.

In her bedroom is a visible reminder of why she is so passionate about science. Hanging off the side of a bookshelf are the more than 50 medals she’s won at Science Olympiads since elementary school.

In her bedroom is also a glimpse of her present and her future. She has strung a plastic cord across one wall, and clipped to that cord her college acceptance letters and get-well cards.

Her college acceptance letters unveil who Dishita can be; her get-well cards show Dishita who she is –– a friend, a classmate, and a resilient young women whose personal story fuels her push for positive change in pediatric healthcare.

In December, Dishita had her sixth surgery to replace her ICD. Two months later, she had her seventh episode with Long QT Syndrome.

She was walking up a stairwell at ECG and had a cardiac arrest. Her heart stopped. Once again, her ICD saved her life.  

When she woke up, she found herself surrounded by her friends. One of her best friends was holding her hand.

“What happened?” Dishita asked.

“You’re fine,” her friend responded, pulling her up. “You’re safe. You’re OK.”

Dishita is. In more ways than one.

“Though chaos may strike again at any moment, by honoring both my pain and my resilience, I am unstoppable,” Dishita wrote in her personal statement included with her college application. “With a lack of disabled representation in healthcare, I’ll champion my disorder, per aspera ad astra.”

The Latin phrase, “Per aspera ad astra” means “through hardships to the stars.”

Seems appropriate for Dishita, a graduating senior selected a few weeks ago as one of 161 United States Presidential Scholars for the Class of 2024 nationwide.

Pretty impressive.

It’s understandable. Look at what she’s done. Then think about what she wants to do.