Standout Athlete with Cystic Fibrosis Among 5,000
Undergraduates Who Received Diplomas This Weekend
Ioana Patringenaru | June 15, 2009
Jones trains with the UCSD Masters Swimming program every weekday.
Michelle Jones is just 22 but she has already climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and earned a dive master certification, logging more than 200 dives. She also swims two miles a day, every day—all while maintaining a near-perfect grade-point average. This alone would make her a standout among the 5,000 UC San Diego undergraduates who received their bachelor’s degrees this weekend. But there is more to Jones’ story: the determined athlete has been battling a chronic, inherited illness since birth that threatens to cut her life short.
Jones, 22, has cystic fibrosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and the digestive tract. During her time at UCSD, she has been hospitalized twice. She was recently diagnosed with diabetes, a common complication among cystic fibrosis patients. Roughly once a year, she has to stay home, hooked to an IV line pumping antibiotics into her lungs.
Asked how she copes, Jones said she believes disease and disability don’t trump happiness. “The best way to thank the people who saved my life is to live my life and show them what I can do,” she said.
Jones graduated with 900 fellow Muir students at 1 p.m. Saturday on RIMAC Field. “I love UCSD,” she said. “I’m really sad to graduate.” Also this weekend, 911 students graduated from Thurgood Marshall College, 700 from Sixth College, 1050 from Warren College, 640 from Eleanor Roosevelt College and 840 from Revelle College. In addition, 824 students received master’s and doctorate degrees, 58 received MBAs from the Rady School of Management and 110 received graduate degrees from the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.
Graduates listen to Muir student speaker Nasrin Aboulhosn.
This year’s graduation speakers included retired four-star admiral William J. Fallon, who served as commander of the U.S. Central Command, Stan Glasgow, president and chief operating officer of Sony Electronics Inc., San Diego, and UCSD professors Vilayanur Ramanathan, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Michael Schudson, of the communication department. In addition, more than 1,200 members of the UCSD community turned out to hear filmmaker and UCSD alumnus Mike Judge speak at the All Campus Graduation Celebration Friday evening.
Saturday, Jones and her Muir classmates listened as Chancellor Marye Anne Fox told them they had already made a positive difference on campus and encouraged them to do the same in the world.
“It’s our hope that you will follow the example of John Muir and commit yourself to a lifetime of blazing your own trails and making a positive difference in the world,” Fox told graduates.
Chancellor Marye Anne Fox urged Muir graduates to make a positive difference in the world.
She went on to quote President Barack Obama, who said that this generation has come of age at a crucial moment, when it will have to remake the world. It’s a privilege and responsibility afforded to few generations, Fox said. “It’s not only rights, it’s also responsibilities that you accept when you become a graduate of UCSD,” she said.
But Saturday, most graduates seemed bent on celebrating. They threw beach balls during the ceremony and applauded heartily as Muir student speaker Nasrin Aboulhosn predicted each one of them would succeed beyond their expectations. Parents were equally exuberant, cheering loudly, blowing bubbles and using noisemakers as their children walked onto the stage. After the ceremony, graduates reunited with parents and relatives, hugging, collecting bouquets and clusters of balloons.
Jones stood patiently as her parents, Mary and Burton Jones, made their way through the crowd. Her older sister Kristine had a wedding to plan and couldn’t make it. The family planned to have dinner at the Marine Room that evening. Jones explained she always wanted to eat at the restaurant, in front of which she had dove so many times. “It’s good,” she said when asked how she felt after graduating. “I never thought I wouldn’t make it. But it’s fun.”
In fact, Jones’ first year at UCSD didn’t start well. A few weeks after the beginning of the fall quarter, she landed in the emergency room at Thornton Hospital. She was out of breath just going from her bed to the door of her dorm room. It was the first time cystic fibrosis had triggered a serious episode for her, she said. The disease causes mucus to build up inside the body and impairs the function of vital organs, including the lungs and the pancreas.
Jones during one of her diving expeditions. She is a master diver.
She flew to the San Francisco Bay Area to be treated at Stanford University, where her parents’ health insurance would cover her. Jones wasn’t reacting to some of the treatments the doctors tried. When they told her so, she lost her optimistic outlook for the first time in her life, she recalled. “I fell apart,” she said.
But her condition improved quickly. UCSD staff members, and particularly the campus’ Office for Students with Disabilities, were extremely helpful during that time, Jones said. Staff members from the housing department also were key. They took her parents to her dorm room, so they could clean up. They sent her flowers in the hospital. Her suitemates from the Muir dorms decorated her hospital room with Halloween stickers.
Jones was able to return in winter quarter and her health stabilized—until her junior year. Cystic fibrosis is characterized by a cycle of slow declines, she explained. That year, she just knew she was going to land in the hospital, she said.
This time, her stay began right before finals week. Jones didn’t let that stop her. She worked the phones and asked her professors to allow her to take her finals at the hospital, with her doctor as her proctor. She then faxed them in. Faculty members were very understanding—and a little puzzled. “They all thought I was crazy,” she said. “But I just wanted to get it done.”
Michelle Jones, 22, holds a bouquet after walking at the Muir graduation Saturday.
Indeed, stopping Jones doesn’t seem to be an easy task. Every day, she wakes up around 4:30 a.m. and undergoes one to two hours of respiratory therapy. That entails wearing a special device that looks a little like a life vest and inflates and deflates at high speed, compressing and releasing her lung walls. The vest allows for better airflow and breaks up the mucus trapped in the lungs. Jones also has a range of different medications, which she inhales via a nebulizer, a device that delivers drugs as mist.
When asked where she finds the motivation to keep going in spite of her disease, Jones points to her upbringing. Her parents always treated her the same way they treated her sister, who is two years older than her and doesn’t have the disease, she said. “Illness is not synonymous with irresponsibility,” she said. “And it’s not an excuse.” So, she goes out of her way to do what everyone else does, she said. She often ends up doing more.
Jones swims in the UCSD Masters Swimming program every weekday from 6 to 7:30 a.m. On average, she will put in about two miles daily, alternating between short and long swims and between strokes. “She comes in and she’s a trooper,” said Ronald Marcikic, director and head coach of the UCSD Masters Sports program. “She has even done some rough water events that I wouldn’t do. We’re going to miss her. It’s not fair that she’s leaving.”
One of Jones’ favorite memories of her time on campus is a three-mile swim that Marcikic organizes in La Jolla. Swimming helps keep her healthy, she said. Her passion for the water also led her to SCUBA diving. “It helps me keep in touch with the ocean, and the real world,” she said. She was the president of the UCSD SCUBA club for three years.
Jones at Canyonview Pool, where she logs two miles every weekday.
She took over the job at a low point, when membership had dwindled to about a dozen, recalls Neal Atkinson, a club member who also is the manager of continuity services on campus. He and Jones are frequent dive buddies. After taking over the club’s reins, Jones spent a good deal of time reaching out to students and offering to dive with them. She organized several diving trips to Catalina Island and as far south as La Bufadora, in Mexico’s Baja California. As interest in the club increased, dive masters and organizations from on and off campus started working with the group. It now has about 50 dues-paying members and many more volunteers.
“She’s thankful that she’s here and able to do these things,” Atkinson said. “That shows in her leadership.”
Another of Jones’ favorite memories is a trip she took with club members to the Baja lagoons where whales give birth to their calves. She even got to pet some of the giant sea mammals, she said. Diving also helps her focus on what’s next for her: studying in a fisheries biology graduate program at Humboldt State University. She said she would like to come back to San Diego to work as a post-doc researcher at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
She does sometimes get overwhelmed when thinking about the future, she said. She will be off her parents’ health insurance in just three years and student health plans would barely begin to cover her medical expenses. Medications alone run $5,000 to $6,000 a year. “As you get older, you get sicker and you need more things,” she said. In spite of these challenges, Jones said she firmly believes she’s not out of the ordinary.
“Everyone has problems,” she said.