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Young ODU Student Is Not Going to Let Anything Stop Him, Least of All His Disease

He's tall for his age. And he speaks like an adult. If you glance quickly at Spencer Lane, you might think he's just like the other kids in his math or English class. That's just the way Lane likes it. He wants to blend in.

But take a good look. His boyish face is a giveaway.

One professor last semester would scan his classroom early in each lecture, invariably stopping at Lane, and doing a double take.

You see, Spencer Lane is 14. And he's a freshman at Old Dominion University, studying to be a mechanical engineer.

"When I first came into a class, it took a moment to sink in: I'm actually doing this," he says. "But it's going well so far."

Lane's family decided to forgo high school, moving him from eighth grade to ODU at the start of the Fall 2008 semester.

His SAT score of 1170 (taken at age 12) suggested he could handle the class work. His 3.8 GPA is proof of it. But his obvious smarts aren't even the reason he's here.

A year ago, Lane was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal tract. The disease meant the healthy, active 13-year-old faced a nightmare year of feeding tubes, pills, hospital visits and bed rest. The health hardship continues. He takes 30 pills daily to try to keep the symptoms at bay, but still vomits a couple of times every day.

"It's annoying, but you have to take what you can get and make it the best that you can," he says. "If I wasn't diagnosed with Crohn's disease, I might have headed off to high school instead of coming here."

The family decided that Lane could better handle the rigors of university classes than he could the long hours of sitting every day in a high school classroom. His classes are concentrated on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so he can fit in his many medical treatments the rest of the week. He also spends a lot of time recuperating in his Virginia Beach home.

Mom Michele knew that her son could handle the academics. "He was a very early talker. And one day (when he was 3) he just picked up a book and started reading," she recalls.

"His reasoning was also very advanced at a very young age. He'd say, 'I understand why you're saying that, but could we do things this way instead?' This was as a 2 ½ or 3-year-old!"

Lane says it was difficult in earlier grades that his classmates weren't as interested in learning as he was. Of course, they were also 6 or 8 or 10 years old, and simply wanted to play.

Now for the first time, he's in class with some students who know a little more than he does.

"I actually kind of like that. I like being in an environment where people want to learn," he says.

Julie Manthey, a lecturer in the English department, taught Lane English 110. She says she watched him flourish in her class.

"He came in a bit shy, but before I knew it he was working as a peer reviewer for his much older classmates during writing workshops," Manthey says. "He was never afraid to contribute to classroom discussions or ask questions - he simply fit in with everyone else."

Manthey continues to be dazzled by Lane this semester. She's teaching him Introduction to Technical and Scientific Writing this semester.

"Spencer is an inspiration. I know there were many days when he didn't feel well, but he still came to class. His commitment to excelling in college motivates all who meet him to try that much harder - especially me."

Lane hopes to get his mechanical engineering degree, then go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his master's, specializing in robotics.

"I want to be the engineer who invents a way to make the capsule endoscopy smarter, thus eliminating sedation, and more invasive procedures," he says.

He hopes that talking about his disease will make people aware of the impact it can have on an otherwise healthy child's life. Last June, Lane participated in the Take Steps Walk for Crohn's and Colitis, raising $6,000 for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. He's met with local congressmen to talk about funding for research about the disease.

Unlike other types of inflammatory bowel disease, there is no known drug or surgical cure for Crohn's disease. Treatment options are limited to controlling symptoms, putting and keeping the disease in remission and preventing relapse.

While Lane would love a cure to be found for Crohn's, he hopes that the awareness and money raised are concentrated on the prevention of the disease. "That way people can hopefully avoid even getting into the situation I'm in."

However, don't think for a moment that Lane's enrollment at ODU is a publicity stunt. He doesn't want to be treated any differently from his much older classmates. Lane hopes to demonstrate that in spite of having an incurable disease, people can still do great things.

"I don't want to be known as the kid with Crohn's disease. I want to be known as the 17-year-old college graduate who happens to have Crohn's," he says.

This article was posted on: March 6, 2009

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