OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’ve all heard stories about unexpected encounters that change people’s lives in profound ways. While not all of us have experienced that kind of event, Dr. Anna Larson is one who has.

It came when she was applying to medical schools. A friend mentioned that a couple she knew was seeking a caregiver for their son, Jake Pritzker, a young adult with Angelman syndrome (AS) living in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Anna accepted the task. Once she started working with Jake, it helped focus her future plans on specializing in pediatric neurology and in particular, epilepsy and AS. It is a path she is still pursuing, though her accomplishments are already quite impressive.

Today, as a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota Medical School, she is preparing to start a residency at the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital, where she will work with Drs. Elizabeth Thiele and Ronald Thibert, leading Angelman Syndrome Foundation (ASF)-funded researchers and AS clinicians, and members of the ASF Scientific Advisory Committee. In fact, she previously had a chance to assist in research at Mass General while in medical school. That work, too, was inspired by her time with Jake.

“We grew very close,” Anna said. “Being able to have Jake in my life before and during medical school was incredibly important to me. The chance to spend time with him was always very grounding and helpful to me because it expanded my focus from flash cards and exams to the people I wanted to care for.”

Although fond of science throughout her early years and during her undergraduate studies in chemistry at Carleton College, Anna had been unsure of her precise path for the future. “Some kids grow up knowing they are going to be, say, a cardiothoracic surgeon for sure,” Anna said. “But I didn’t know what kind of doctor I was going to be. Caring for Jake and learning about him and AS was fundamental in terms of helping me find my path in pediatric neurology.” Larson3

Anna’s inclination toward a medical career may even have had its earliest roots in her childhood. When she was in grade school, she took piano lessons in a neighboring town. Her dad drove her to the lessons, and on the way home, because he was a pastor, they would often go to the hospital to visit patients. “I have such strong and positive memories of that, of being at the hospital and being comfortable with my dad there. I think in some ways that was an important piece for me, too.  In high school, I also had a phenomenal biology teacher who was very inspiring for me in many ways and very much helped me find my stride in science.”

Anna’s work with Jake has also led to an active role with the ASF. “I was very, very lucky,” she said. “When I first met the Pritzkers, Fred was president of the ASF. I started working with Jake in the summer of 2006, and I was able to go to the ASF Biennial Conference in St. Louis in 2007. “I met a lot of families and heard incredible talks while there. Later, while conducting research at Mass General in 2011, I attended the ASF Conference again in Salt Lake City and had the opportunity to present research at the ASF Scientific Symposium and during the Conference.”

With nearly two-dozen publications and presentations to her credit, Anna’s body of research is already impressive. “Some of our most exciting research has focused on the efficacy of the low-glycemic-index treatment/diet (LGIT) in AS,” she explained. “LGIT was developed by Dr. Thiele and dietician Heidi Pfeifer at Mass General ­and is a modified version of the ketogenic diet, which is a very low-carbohydrate diet that’s effective in seizure management for some patients.”

“Another important project looked at adults with AS. We conducted an interview series with parents and caregivers of adults and adolescents over the age of 16 by phone. Then we compiled those results and presented them at conferences. Now we are in the final stages of publication of those results, which are currently in peer review. This is the project that was most inspired by my work with Jake.”

Of her day-to-day work with Jake, Anna said, “When we are together, we organize his daily schedule. He’s involved in his community with a group called Highland Friendship Club. It’s a wonderful organization for young adults both with and without disabilities for social inclusion and involvement in community. They do volunteer work in the area and have fitness classes, art classes, cooking classes and weekend movie night. We often spend time with his friends. We have meals together and exercise together, too.”

Anna recalls one particular day when she took Jake to visit his grandfather, who was in a nursing home at the time. The staff had set up a balloon-volleyball net in the dining room and divided residents and guests into teams. “Jake was the team captain,” said Anna, “and he was so into the game! It was a really special day for me.”

Anna reports that Jake, now 29, is doing quite well. And she believes the future holds promise for individuals with AS. “I think it’s a really exciting time, a very hopeful time in history,” she said. “We’re continuing to learn more and more about the neurogenetics of AS, and seeing the work of the ASF is phenomenal in terms of research funding and supporting individuals with AS and their families directly. The research and the energy around research in AS continues to build in many ways due to the support and focus of the ASF.”

As for her own future, Anna is eager to begin her residency at Mass General. It will take five years, the first two of which will focus on general pediatric care. The following three years will be spent in the neurology department. At the end, she will be board eligible in both pediatrics and neurology.

“After my residency, I intend to pursue an epilepsy fellowship to become a specialist in epilepsy care,” she said. “I am interested in working in an academic center, potentially in the future to be involved in teaching. For my clinical practice, I’m interested in the possibility of being a caregiver for kids over time. It’s a real honor and privilege that child neurologists often have, working with kids as they grow up. I hope to have a joint focus on both clinical care and clinical research. That’s the dream anyway!”

That dream of Anna Larson’s continues to come closer to reality. As she embarks on her residency at Mass General, there is little doubt that the inspiration she found in Jake Pritzker will stay with her throughout her career. “I look back at this experience as defining my dedication to pediatric neurology,” she said. “Through Jake, I have found my passion.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA