Paige Barrette playing guitar in Guatemala

Student faces formidable foe on long trek to graduation

Psychology grad says Lyme disease threatened but shaped her education

December 13, 2017

Paige Barrette still gets “teary-eyed” every time she drives onto the University of Colorado Denver campus. After waking up one day at age 14 unable to walk, higher-education for the then straight-A student and avid soccer player appeared out of reach.

In and out of hospitals, with stumped doctors eventually suggesting it was “all in her head,” Barrette’s brain began abandoning her, stealing her memory and hopes of becoming a first-generation college graduate in her family.

Then, after finally being diagnosed with Lyme disease two years too late for antibiotic-fighting treatment, and struggling to find any effective medical care at all, a specialist told Barrette and her family that she would be confined to a nursing home by age 30.

That was her turning point.

“I just figured eventually it was either going to be all or nothing,” said Barrette, 25, who battled through a string of treatments for nearly a decade in the family’s desperate search to gain her health back. “I just chose then to keep hope through it all,” said the Littleton native. “And I’m glad I did.”

Barrett getting IV treatment
Barrette receiving one of many treatments she endured during a 10-year quest toward health.

On Saturday, Barrette will walk across the stage at the Colorado Convention Center with upwards of 900 other CU Denver students at the graduation ceremony, accepting a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology with honors. While her disease made the feat more challenging, her educational experience was so transformational, Barrette said she would not change a thing.

Getting through hard times

“She was angry at first,” said Julie Barrette, Barrette’s mother. “It took away her high school and much of her college years,” she said. Her daughter spent most of her high-school time bedridden, with teachers coming to her home. “And a lot of friends forgot about her.”

Caused by bacteria-carrying ticks and most common in Eastern states where Barrette had traveled, untreated Lyme disease can attack the joints, heart and nervous system. “I had terrible brain fog, memory loss and processing issues,” Barrette said. “If someone gave me their phone number, I couldn’t figure out how to put it in the phone,” she said as an example.

Chronic fatigue, nausea, vomiting and pain struck hard during flare-ups. “It felt like all of my bones were breaking all the time,” said Barrette, who only recently tried working out again with a short jog. “If you do a little too much one day, or you get a little bug, it activates it again.”

Often a prisoner in her malfunctioning body during her teenage years, Barrette bought a $30 guitar at Target and turned to music for therapy. “I don’t think she would have survived if it weren’t for teaching herself guitar and writing music and singing,” her mother said. “It’s amazing what music does to you. It just calmed her so much. And the music that she wrote was just unbelievable.”

Barrette playing her guitar
Barrette, who used music as therapy, performs at a wedding.

Barrette, who won the Colorado Solo Artist of the Year in 2013 and still performs in local restaurants, said music remains her biggest comfort.

Going back to school

After the family’s relentless search for help finally paid off with a chronic disease specialist in Kansas, where Barrette began walking without pain again, and a brain specialist in Colorado, who helped her with new tools for learning, Barrette enrolled in CU Denver.

“It was so different,” Barrette said, comparing school with her pre-sickness days when success came easily. Her studying process involved meticulous reading, re-reading, highlighting and taking notes, normally for 10 hours a day, she said. But she loved every minute of it. “I was so excited to be in school. And it was cool to see that, even though it took me longer, I was getting it.”

Barrette believes her CU Denver choice made a difference. “I have not had one teacher who hasn’t been more than willing to help with any aspect I needed. It was always easy to build relationships, and I never felt uncomfortable coming in for help or even asking for an extension on an assignment. The support here has been amazing,” she said.

Searching for new lessons

As a student, Barrette stands out in both her intellectual curiosity and her persistent pursuit to find the answers, said Amy Wachholtz, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “She seeks out new experiences to add to her career, and she’s always wanting to know more. That’s part of why she joined my lab.”

Attracted to Wachholtz’s lab because of a focus on chronic diseases, Barrette found a knack and love for research. She helped conceive of a project studying migraine symptoms in children and how they vary from adults, possibly leading to delayed diagnosis. Her team was accepted to present its abstract at the Society of Behavioral Medicine conference in April in New Orleans and is awaiting word on publishing a paper in a professional journal.

Maymester students with Guatemalan kids
The crew poses with local children during a Maymester class in Guatemala.

Barrette, whose experience helped shape her career choice, wants to work with children, particularly those suffering from chronic disease and pain. “Going through this without any mental counseling made me realize how important help is for the chronic-illness community and their families,” she said.

She has worked as a youth treatment counselor at the Tennyson Center during school and also served as a research assistant and teaching assistant while maintaining a 3.9 grade-point average. This past summer, she joined the Maymester Class in Guatemala as part of the Nobel Peace Project, teaching students English and music and conducting a research project on the effect of income and social influences on well-being and happiness.

Despite having so little, Third World countries consistently outrank the United States on the happiness scale, she said. “I think everybody should go to a Third World country where your bubble gets popped.”

Attaining her passion

Although she acknowledges that she lost much of her normal youth time because of Lyme disease, Barrette, who has set graduate school as her next goal, turns the focus around. “I wouldn’t change anything. I gained a lot that I don’t think most kids my age gain: a world view and a bigger appreciation for things. I’m excited that this is who I am, and this is what I’m passionate about.”

Her mother said Barrette will have a large group of supporters in the stands Saturday. “I’m just so proud that she never gave up. I don’t know if I’m going to be cheering or bawling. I can’t even talk about it without tearing up. It’s just going to be incredible. And I can’t wait to see what more she does.”