Vidhima Shetty, 18, made a name for herself locally with her dogged pursuit to help sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome.
When she was attending California High School in San Ramon, she became aware of the plight of an afflicted young man in her neighborhood, talked to his family and learned more about the disease. She published an article about it in her school paper, The Californian.
"This disease affects 1.5 million to 2 million people in the United States, but it is not very well-known," Shetty said.
The disease is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), which means a neuro inflammation of the brain and the spine.
Shetty said after her story went online, she was surprised by a barrage of emails from people coping with the illness. Compounding the suffering, patients have to deal with people who do not understand it.
"I started getting comments from all over the world, thankful that someone who doesn't have the disease went out of the way to write about it," Shetty said.
In response to the interest, Shetty expanded her research, sought help from medical professionals to review her findings, and last year published a 122-page book, "An Adolescent's Guide to ME/CFS." She donates proceeds to the Open Medicine Foundation, which is doing research to find a cure.
Shetty targeted young people because ME/CFS is the most common reason adolescents are out of school for long periods of time, according to Linda Tannenbaum, CEO of Open Medicine Foundation.
"It's not diagnosed easily so most parents and kids don't know they have it," Tannenbaum told Shetty. "And a lot of people think that the kids are lazy, that they don't want to study, or have a hard time concentrating because they don't try hard enough."
Shetty, the Tri-Valley Hero in the Rising Star category, is now a freshman at Columbia University, which has been a great adventure for her.
"This is my first time ever coming to the East Coast," she said. "I feel like it is definitely a good learning experience."
Many of her new friends hail from other countries so at least she is familiar with life in the United States, she added with a laugh. Shetty said that as she and other new students talk about their interests, she is sure to educate them about CFS.
"It's great to see how they react," she said.
She is majoring in English and economics, suggested by her adviser since Columbia does not have an undergraduate major in journalism. One of the first extracurricular activities Shetty applied for was the school newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, which publishes in print once a week and online daily.
"It's wonderful because it's all student-run and student-led," she said. "You're a trainee for six weeks, then you have to apply to be a staff writer."
Shetty said the atmosphere and rigor of Cal High prepared her for college.
"If anything, I feel like at college the classes aren't so often, so although they are a little bit harder, you have more time to manage your work," she noted.
Despite her whirlwind life in New York, Shetty keeps abreast of research on chronic fatigue syndrome.
"I am still settling in but I know at Columbia there are professors specifically interested in CFS," she said. "I want to reach out to them and get to know, in terms of their research, what they are focusing on."
She plans to update her book as breakthroughs are made.
"I keep in contact with all of the patients I have interviewed," Shetty said. "When you connect with a patient, I don't feel it's something you can ever let go."
Shetty said the Hero award means a lot to her because it helps with her CFS efforts.
"It is a testament to what I want to continue to do," she said. "I hope that through word of mouth people will understand what this disease is, and I hope to raise enough awareness to find a cure and help this community."
"One of the best days of my life will be when we find a cure," she added.
* Vidhima Shetty is an art museum enthusiast and a fan of surrealism. She'd been to SFMOMA and was thrilled recently to visit the "actual MOMA."
* She knows American Sign Language and is involved with the ASL Club at Columbia.
* Shetty enjoys reading and writing poetry. She hopes someday to publish a "chat book" of 60-70 poems.
* She also hopes to write novels, and she loves to read and analyze works by others.
* She is a rabbit-enthusiast and once owned six. Although she currently has none, she plans to adopt rabbits in the future.