Summer means different things to people. For some, it means that school is over—giving way to the indulgence of tantalizing s’mores eaten around a campfire on a warm, starry night. For others, it means spending more time with loved ones through family vacations and Fourth of July barbecues. For me, it means all of the above and so much more.
One of the most memorable aspects of my summers was floating paper boats with my brother. Near my house, there was a pristine and clear river with numerous, jagged rocks jutting out of the water and oak trees adorning the sides of the river. I remember bringing stacks of notebook paper with us every summer, which my brother and I folded into paper boats. I always colored my paper boats with a dark blue crayon while my brother colored his with a bright yellow crayon. Afterward, we would set the boats afloat on the river and watch them flow slowly along the stream, seeing which boat would go the farthest. After a few minutes, the boats would always get stuck on a protruding branch or rock. Back then, I always wondered why my boat could never avoid all of the obstacles and reach the end of the river, which led to a large, turquoise-colored lake. Over the many summers that I went to that same river, not once did my boat ever reach the lake without getting stuck at some point along its voyage.
Now, when I think of my boat getting stuck in front of a rock or a fallen tree branch, I cannot help but compare life to those paper boats that were floating along the river. Like a paper boat, people face numerous, different obstacles at some point in their lives. Some obstacles are small, like the rocks that were barely breaking the water’s surface. Other obstacles are big, like the thick branches that manipulated the river current. Like the paper boat, I have had plenty of small rocks blocking me, but I have only had one branch stand in my way: celiac disease.
Celiac disease caused intestinal damage every time I ate gluten, which prevented nutrients from being absorbed properly. I was diagnosed with celiac after the Thanksgiving break in my junior year. Before knowing I had celiac, I felt as if there was an invisible, unyielding tree branch that I was constantly pushing against. It drained my energy and incited headaches and stomach aches throughout my sophomore year and a quarter of my junior year. It became so difficult to concentrate during my classes that I stopped taking notes and resorted to merely listening to the lectures in my classes. I kept feeling as if there was something hindering me—blocking me from my full potential—but I did not know what it was.
There had to be a reason why I felt too tired to play my favorite sports, such as soccer, and had severe headaches that discouraged me from reading my favorite novels. The only remedies that helped me cope with this were to get nine hours of sleep and maintain an optimistic outlook. Fortunately, after my diagnosis and adhering to a strict gluten-free diet, I saw the tree branch for the first time and watched it become completely submerged under the relentless river current. Like a boat being liberated from the grasp of a branch or rock, I was able to flow freely, but I was still far behind the other boats.
In order to catch up to the other boats, I had to toss overboard some of my most prized possessions—Speech/Debate and Men’s Chorus. My gastroenterology doctor recommended that I utilize senior year to recuperate, as my immune system was drastically weakened. Thus, after this year, I believe I will be caught up with the other boats as we diverge into different paths towards our respective colleges.
Shivam Patel is a freshman at the University of Southern California and attends as a Presidential Scholar. He graduated from La Cañada High School in 2018. He has interned at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, worked as a courtesy clerk at Sprouts, and volunteered at USC Keck hospital for four years. He is a celiac disease student ambassador, and was in choir and on the speech and debate team at his high school.