A MARKETHILL girl who was forced to take weeks off school due to a rare joint disorder, has achieved top grades in her A-levels and has been accepted to study law at Queen’s.
Carla Higgins suffers from the connective tissue condition, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which means joints in her body can dislocate at any time.
She also has to endure daily joint pain and fatigue but despite these physical challenges, the 19-year-old learnt last week that she had been awarded an A* in law, A in religion and A in business studies.
Carla, a pupil at the Armagh campus of Southern Regional College, was diagnosed with the genetic condition just over a year ago. In fact, so little is known about the syndrome that there is nowhere in Northern Ireland that treats it, and Carla has to attend a specialist in Bath.
The teenager’s mobility problems began about six years ago when her knees kept dislocating. Her mum Elaine said, “The doctors didn’t know what it was at first. It took a long time to diagnose. In her last three years at Markethill High School, she was absent quite a lot.”
Despite her worsening condition and having to give up hobbies such as dancing and hockey, Carla did exceptionally well at GCSE, scoring six As, three Bs and a C.
Last year, in what was her final A Level year, she underwent three operations at Musgrave Park Hospital, followed by follow-up treatment at the Royal, in an attempt to stop her shoulders from dislocating.
During one of these periods in hospital, Carla’s shoulder dislocated 52 times in just over an hour, and she ended up in the high dependency unit.
Said Elaine, “She was admitted to hospital last September for four weeks and had two operations. She went back to school in November but then at Easter she needed a third operation and she wasn’t back much at college after that.
“But she is very determined, with a great spirit and a strong Christian faith, and her studies give her a focus. She is very positive and just wants to get on with her life.”
Carla’s determination to succeed in her studies was matched by her tutors’ dedication to helping her, with staff visiting her at home and corresponding by email to ensure that she had all the help and tuition she needed.
“The staff at Southern Regional College were fantastic,” said Elaine. “They were so kind and treated her with respect. Nothing was any problem to them.”
Paul Torley, deputy head of the School of General Studies and Applied Science, said, “We are extremely proud of Carla’s achievements. She is an intelligent young lady with an amazing strength of character. When Carla was not well enough to attend classes we worked together to ensure she could achieve her goals. When required tutors taught Carla at home and she also utilised the college’s MOODLE internet site to access lessons and chat to tutors.”
Elaine also paid tribute to the family’s minister the Rev David Irvine, of Markethill Presbyterian Church, who has been “very supportive”.
At present, Carla is still having considerable problems with her shoulder joints as the operations - which were always a “long shot” - were not successful.
It means that Carla may have to delay going to university for a few months while doctors try to settle the joints. She has a place in halls of residence and a care package has been arranged to help her.
Said Elaine, “Carla can’t wait to get to university. She first did law at AS level and loved it. She is very keen on human rights, which has come about in part by her condition. We have had to fight for her in so many ways.
“She is quite chatty and outgoing, and has other friends going to Queen’s, and I’m sure she will make lots of new friends too. My hope and that of her dad (Geoffrey) is that she will be able to be as independent as possible.”
Carla, who has a younger brother Ryan (15), is a keen singer and performs at weddings. She is also a sub-officer with Markethill Girls’ Brigade.