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Claris Diaz is literally one in two million
Sierra High graduate Claris Diaz raises her arms in triumph after graduation ceremonies in December at the University of Glasgow where she received her master’s degree in evolutionary Biology and Systematics. - photo by Photo Contributed

Claris Diaz is a person who almost defies definition.

She is an ambitious young woman – that, she is. The words of her former pole vault coach nearly a decade ago attest to that, and proved to be truly prophetic.

“Claris is a very goal-oriented person. I don’t think anything will stand in her way,” is how her proud coach Lisa Hobbs described her star athlete.

That was the year 2000. Diaz was a senior at Sierra High. That quote was part of a story in the Manteca Bulletin about Diaz when she beat the old pole vault record at her school set the year before, hurtling her petite body way above the bar to a new 9-feet-0-inches new record. It was her old record that she smashed, and remained there until it was broken just two years ago.

To say that the soon-to-be Ph.D. candidate at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom is one in a million could also apply to this indefatigable 27-year-old. But she is not.

She is actually one in two million. That statistic refers to the very rare medical condition that has dogged her since she was 10 years old, but one that did not have a name until a year ago while she was studying for her master’s degree in evolutionary biology and systematics at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. That’s when she and her parents, Gilbert and Emelie Diaz of Manteca, found out for the first time that the seizures and numbness that she has been experiencing off and on since she was 10 were actually the symptoms of Moyamoya syndrome, a type of brain disease that strikes just one person in two million. The word is a Japanese term that, literally translated, means “puff of cigarette smoke.”

Medical reports on the Internet describe it as a disease that tends to affect children and adults in their 30s and 40s. Among children, Moyamoya tends to cause strokes or seizures. For Diaz, the seizures “occurred a lot when I was in grade school, and would stop for maybe a few months then start again more frequently.”

At the University of California at Davis, where she received her Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences with emphasis in neurobiology, physiology and behavior, “it wasn’t as bad until I was about 20-21, then the symptoms started again,” she recalled.

They happened again while she was in the thick of her research project and finishing her dissertation in Glasgow in 2008 so that Diaz had to undergo not just one but two brain surgeries in Berlin.

Why Berlin and not Glasgow? “Because the health care system (in Glasgow) was very slow,” she said, which meant she would have waited several months before she received the proper treatment.

Immediate surgery was imperative. As Diaz explained it, “My middle cerebral artery which gives blood supply to my brain gradually became smaller and smaller and put me at risk for aneurism or stroke.”

The doctors had to do a bypass surgery where they connected her healthy temporal artery to her middle cerebral artery.

The Moyamoya affected both sides of her brain, so she had to undergo two surgeries. The first one took place on Oct. 5, 2008 and the second one was on Nov. 23, 2008.

Diaz said the doctors wanted to do the two surgeries separately “because it was very exhaustive for the surgeon doing it,” for one thing. Each operation takes about four to five hours. It was also to give the patient some relief from the pain.

The surgery is “very painful,” Diaz said, so doing the operation one side of the brain at a time made her able to “sleep on one side.”

Fortunately for Diaz, her German boyfriend, Sebastian Hesselmann, who was also pursuing his master’s degree at the same university where they met, also did his own research about Moyamoya once the proper diagnosis was made. Even more fortunate was the fact doctors at the hospital in Berlin where she had the surgeries actually specialized in treating Moyamoya patients and are considered among the best in the world. It was, in fact, Hesselmann and his parents, who flew Diaz from Scotland to Berlin as quickly as possible so that she could receive immediate medical attention.

“So, I’m really lucky,” said Diaz who is spending Christmas and the New Year with her parents and younger siblings, Albert who is with the U.S. Navy stationed in South Carolina, and Carol who is attending the University of California at Davis, until she returns to the United Kingdom in January to begin her internship as research assistant to the professor who is in charge of the program that she applied to for her doctorate in neuroscience.

As Hobbs predicted, the determined and strong-willed Diaz was not fazed by the Moyamoya scare in any way and did not let it get in her way toward fulfilling her dreams. In December, a smiling Diaz stood next to her father after receiving her master’s degree while, in another telling picture, she had both arms raised up high in triumph.

She was supposed to finish her master’s in 12 months, but because of her health scare which set her back about six months, she did not finish her dissertation until July of last year and had it submitted in September. In December, she participated in the graduation ceremonies and graduated with distinction.

“I had a very good supervisor and he helped me a lot. Everyone on the faculty was very helpful; they were very nice,” Diaz said about the kind of assistance she received while finishing her studies in the wake of her medical ordeal.

Faith has helped her go through medical ordeal
“The recovery process was really difficult because I was really feeling sick. I was sad for a really long time. I felt like so many things changed; my life took a direction that I was not expecting. For a while, I was afraid to make plans, because everything’s going to change. But no one can really live like that. You have to set goals and give yourself something to look forward to, something to strive for,” Diaz said of some of the lessons she has learned from this experience.

“I’ve always been religious because I was raised in a very Catholic family, but I’m a lot more spiritual because of this. And I just feel that I should not take my faith for granted either because it’s definitely one of the things that helped me get through this last year,” she added.

She still has some health issues with seizures, dizziness and numbness in her legs, arms – “sometimes it’s just my hands” – for which she continues to see a neurologist and will probably have to undergo more testing.

But one other silver lining that was the result of her illness, Diaz said it is “one of the reasons why I want to pursue neuroscience” and be involved in research in this field.

An inspiration to family and friends
“She’s an inspiration to all of us, including myself. I’m sure she was scared but she is a fighter,” said Diaz’s proud father, an engineer at NUMMI in Fremont, about his daughter’s bout with a serious illness.

The ordeal, he said, “was an eye-opener on how fragile life is. It was something that I would not wish anyone to experience. But it also made us closer to God.”

The family has always been devout Catholics, active in many parish programs and heavily involved in ministries, especially in music. Wife Emelie, a former music teacher with the Manteca Unified School District who has her own voice and piano studio in Manteca, is also the music director at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church.

 Even with all these church involvements though, Gilbert Diaz said, “I still felt that we are even now closer to God after this experience.”

The most painful part of the ordeal, he said, was being so far away from family and home in Manteca while they kept a vigil over their daughter at the hospital in Berlin.

“All we could do was sit in the hospital chapel” and pray, Gilbert Diaz said.

The other tough part was leaving his wife in Berlin with their daughter so that he could attend to business at home and go back to work. Emelie stayed with her daughter, between Berlin and Scotland, for a total of three months.

The Diazes have only praises for the people that they encountered in Berlin especially the medical staff at the hospital.

“They treated us really well. They took care of us. They treated us with respect and they were very hospitable,” Gilbert said.

They also did not forget to give thanks for the miracle that happened in their lives. After Claris’s December graduation at Glasgow University, she and her father stopped at Our Lady of Lourdes in France to give thanks to the Blessed Virgin Mary.