Health & Environment

‘Equal Parts Grit And Grace’

Severely ill Texas A&M student honored for helping other ill youth.
By Mike Reilly, Texas A&M University System Communications February 11, 2022

group shot of student and her family in front of a stage
Texas A&M student Rebecca Taylor, second from right, with her family at the Hearts of Hope luncheon. She was honored with the Robin Bush Award.

Mike Reilly/Texas A&M University System Marketing & Communications

Imagine a teenager who battles life-threatening, debilitating illness for most of her young life, enduring 100 surgeries and 1,200 days in hospitals, missing holidays at home, high-school dances and hanging out with friends.

She needs an oxygen tank at her side and lives in pain day after day. It can be a struggle just to get out of bed.

It is easy to imagine such a teenager turning inward, not finishing high school, feeling hopeless.

Now meet the actual teenager: Rebecca Taylor.

She is a first-year engineering student at Texas A&M University, a National Merit Scholar, Presidential Scholar and a Brown Scholar. Her advanced placement work in high school already has earned her nearly half of her undergraduate course credits. She’s a ninth-generation Texan and a third-generation Aggie.

And there’s more: Rebecca, 19, was honored in Houston Thursday along with her mother, Christyn Taylor ’98, for starting a charity to help children across the nation who suffer from pancreatitis.

They were given the annual Robin Bush Award, which is offered in memory of the daughter of former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush who died in 1953 of leukemia at the age of three.

“Rebecca is equal parts grit and grace,” said Sue Smith, who introduced the honorees. Smith is a member of the board of directors of the nonprofit Bo’s Place, which hosted its annual Hearts of Hope luncheon. Bo’s Place is a free-of-charge bereavement center for children and families. About 450 people attended the fundraiser at the Westin Galleria.

“My life isn’t over,” Rebecca told well-wishers between two standing ovations, “and I know that many other children out there think that their life is. That their diagnosis means the end of all things good and beautiful. And out of everything I’ve gone through, what breaks my heart the most is the thought of another child having to walk the same path that I did. To have the same excruciating pain and immense loss that leaves them hopeless.”

Since she was seven years old, Rebecca has fought an auto-immune disease and pancreatitis, an inflammation of the organ tucked behind the stomach that helps with digestion and processing of sugar. Her longtime physician, Dr. Sandeep Patel, a pancreatic specialist at UT Health San Antonio, says women who have endured both childbirth and pancreatitis say the pain of pancreatitis is worse.

Eventually Rebecca lost her pancreas and other internal organs during years of life-saving procedures. She developed numerous infections and blood clots. Her family has lost count of how many times they feared her fight was over.

Approached at age 12 by Make-A-Wish, Rebecca decided not to meet a celebrity or go to Disney World. Instead, she asked to start her own charity. She had seen too many other children traumatized by long hospital stays and too little understanding of pancreatitis among pediatricians.

student hugging her doctor at a luncheon
Rebecca hugs her longtime physician, Dr. Sandeep Patel, a pancreatic specialist at UT Health San Antonio.

Mike Reilly/Texas A&M University System Marketing & Communications

And so began Rebecca’s Wish, which supports young people through the excruciating trauma and emotional toll of pancreatitis. It connects ailing patients with others who have the disease for support, and it offers the children services and activities such as summer camps. It helps parents and physicians with expert advice. The charity even underwrites a year-long training program to spread best practices among pediatricians across the United States.

Christyn Taylor is the president of the charity. She has been a constant at Rebecca’s hospital bedside and became an expert on treatment despite no formal medical training.

“Christyn is, simply put, a force,” said Smith during her introductions. “Woe be to the new medical fellow or resident in Rebecca’s care team who makes assumptions about Christyn just being ‘the mom’ of the patient.”

In accepting the award, Christyn said, “Our helping others really helped ourselves. Our family’s suffering became our greatest strength. We saw God turn something beautiful from our heap of ashes.”

Smith and her husband, Craig Brown, got to know Rebecca and her family through their leadership of the Brown Foundation, which seeks out well-rounded students with sterling academic credentials. Rebecca is one of 190 Brown Scholars at A&M this academic year.

Smith applauded the rest of Rebecca’s family for their support: Her father, Brian Taylor ’95; her younger brothers, Nicholas and Alexander; and her grandparents, Becky Russell and B. Don Russell ’70, a Texas A&M distinguished professor of electrical and chemical engineering.

“The Taylor/Russell family members are all extraordinary,” she said.

Rebecca plans to complete her undergraduate degree at A&M within two years, earn a master’s degree in biochemistry at Harvard University, and return to A&M for a master’s degree in engineering and a doctorate in medicine through the new EnMed program based in Houston.

She plans on becoming a medical researcher to improve pancreatic treatments and find a cure.

“I may not be the healthiest person in the room, or the smartest or the strongest. But I do know that I have a purpose,” she said. “I pray that all of my suffering can one day be turned into the  smile on another child’s face as they realize that they’re out of pain for the first time that they can remember.”

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