Jessica Bechman remembers the looks she got when sitting in her wheelchair.
She didn’t have the strength to move her arms and legs properly and could feel the stares from people as they passed her and her friends and family in the aisles of a department store.
She could tell some of the people pitied her, even though they didn’t say anything. Others just ignored her.
“It really gave me a perspective of what it’s like to be different from other people and have something that people don’t understand,” the 18-year-old New Whiteland teen said.
Bechman has a condition called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, which causes the nerves connecting the heart and the brain to stop working correctly. That meant when Bechman’s blood pressure was too low, her brain believed her blood pressure was too high, and it dropped even further, causing her to pass out. The condition also slowed the circulation in her legs, causing her to lose strength in her arms and legs.
Two years ago, when the illness was at its worst, Bechman was in a wheelchair and had to rely on her brothers and her parents for everything: to carry her to the bathroom, to carry her to bed and to help her get ready each morning.
Bechman started managing the condition with blood pressure medication and physical therapy. Today she’s mostly recovered, and she hasn’t used the wheelchair in more than a year.
“Other than random illnesses like strep throat, I’m fine,” she said. “It’s just an amazing feeling to be able to actually act like an actual person and not have to have help from anyone else to do simple tasks that other people don’t even think about doing.”
This fall, Bechman will attend the University of Evansville. To help cover the roughly $42,000 annual cost, she’s received a $31,000 scholarship from the Simon Youth Foundation.
Simon works with the Clark-Pleasant Academy, where students who aren’t keeping up in traditional classes because of medical problems or other challenges can complete high school by taking online courses. Bechman enrolled at the academy last year to make up the courses she missed when she was sick.
She graduated from Clark-Pleasant Academy in December, a semester earlier than her class at Whiteland Community High School, and then started thinking about college.
Bechman wants to study physical therapy, and she hopes to one day become an athletic trainer for the Cincinnati Reds. On days when she had to miss classes and band practices at Whiteland because of her illness, she watched baseball games with her dad, and periodically they went to Cincinnati to see the Reds play.
On days when she worried whether she would ever fully recover, the baseball games offered her some relief, Bechman said. Working for the Reds would let her pair her loves for physical therapy and baseball.
Bechman originally considered attending Ball State University but changed her mind after visiting Evansville’s campus.
“I immediately fell in love with the place,” she said. “It was beautiful, everyone was friendly, and they have a wonderful program.”
But she worried about the cost. Bechman’s family isn’t wealthy, and she wasn’t sure where the money for tuition, books, room and board would come from.
She worked with Clark-Pleasant Academy student services coordinator Lisa Morris to find scholarships, which is when she found the application for the Simon scholarship.
For the application’s essay, Bechman wrote about living with POTS, what it was like depending on other people every day to get around in and outside of her house, and how she has worked to recover from the disease.
The condition was identified only relatively recently, so it’s unclear whether Bechman could regress. But she’s on track to be completely free of symptoms by her mid-20s, and she and her doctors hope that if she reaches 24 with no setbacks she’ll remain recovered.
Bechman will receive $7,750 each year for the scholarship. She already has received a scholarship from the university, and both should cover more than half of the annual cost. She’ll probably take out student loans, but she’s also working at J.C. Penney and baby-sitting to save money.
“It’s a wonderful feeling being able to know that my parents aren’t freaking out over the cost of college anymore,” she said.
She also wants to get started with her career, using her training and her story to inspire other people who need to know there’s hope they can recover from an injury or illness.
“It’s just really great that people can see how far I’ve come,” she said.