HEBRON — Bri Merrill was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 12 years old and has been waging a battle against it ever since.
Now a sophomore at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, the Hebron resident is facing her next challenge in the form of a condition that affects the nerve endings in her stomach: gastroparesis.
“Gastroparesis is another way of saying ‘stomach paralysis,’” Merrill said. “It’s actually a complication that comes from diabetes. The nerve endings in my stomach are either dead or dying, which makes it hard to eat and digest food.”
One of the side effects of the gastroparesis includes hair loss, Merrill said, something that she began experiencing shortly after she was diagnosed in January.
She said that at first, it was a handful of hair here or there. However, over the next few weeks, it began falling out in larger clumps.
“When your hair starts to come out, it’s because your body isn’t absorbing the types of nutrients that you need,” Merrill said.
Lori Merrill, Bri’s mother, said that her daughter didn’t want to go to school, fearing that her hair would fall out in public.
Then, about a week after her hair began falling out, Bri came to her mother and told her, “Just take it off.”
Merrill said that while researching gastroparesis and speaking with doctors about the condition, she learned that “only three percent of diabetics even end up with it.”
“I didn’t think it was something that would happen to me right away, because I was just diagnosed, but when it started happening to me, I told my mom, ‘I don’t want it falling out all over school,’” Merrill said.
Lori said that one night, after showering, a lot of her daughter’s hair came out.
“I told her, ‘There’s nothing I can do for you, but we can buzz it,’ and she said, ‘Okay, take it off,’” Lori said.
Bri said that she had been talking with her sister in Florida via FaceTime about her gastroparesis diagnosis, and that she got a pep talk from her sister about cutting her hair.
“She told me that girls nowadays are rocking short hair and no hair, that it’s just hair and that it’ll grow back,” Bri said.
Lori said that her daughter took the first swipe, and that she finished cutting her daughter’s hair after that.
“I think her taking the first swipe was empowering,” Lori said. “It made it a little easier after that.”
The next day, Merrill said that she went to school with a hat covering her head and was inundated with looks from fellow students.
“I was getting looks from people, like, ‘Oh my gosh, does she have cancer,’” Merrill said. “My friends were very helpful and supportive. One of my friends said, ‘That’s a rude thing to say. If you have questions, just ask her.’”
Lori said that she called the school and asked Principal Ted Moccia if Bri could wear her hat in the early stages, since it made her feel more comfortable.
“Mr. Moccia was really understanding and said he’d let the teachers know that Bri was wearing a hat due to a health issue,” Lori said.
Weeks later, Bri said that she’s still acclimating to her new hairstyle and her gastroparesis diagnosis.
She said that treatments for gastroparesis are few and far between, meaning she’s still adjusting to the side effects and the discomfort that comes with it.
“There’s not a whole lot they can do,” Merrill said. “The treatments range from nausea medications to treat the stomachaches to putting in a stomach pacemaker.”
Bri added that some days, she forgets that she doesn’t have hair, since the hat on her head “feels like hair.”
However, throughout the discomfort and the difficulties that she has faced since she was first diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes five years ago, Bri has faced all of her challenges with a sense of optimism and an eye on the future.
Bri said that she has derived strength from her family, including her sister, who she described as “my best friend and my rock.”
She said that she is hoping to become a doctor in the pediatric endocrinology field and share her experiences with other children and teenagers who have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes or gastroparesis.
And as for her hair?
“It’s just a thing,” Bri repeated. “It doesn’t define who you are.”
Lori agreed, adding, “Hair doesn’t determine your worth.”