There’s a mutual commitment between community supported agriculture and life in a community. The farm feeds people fresh food and, in turn, the people support the farm. But it’s not always about veggies and flowers. The allegiance can be the heart of a healthy community like in Little Washington, where Petals and Produce, the VanStaalduinen father-son business, has served Beaufort County for 21 years. When Tom’s wife Heather faced a rare, hard-to-diagnose illness, their daughter Hannah had an idea. The community responded.
“Hannah’s commitment and perseverance is incredibly inspiring, and makes us all want to work harder to find the cause and cure for this disease,” said Dr. Ron Falk.
During the summer of 2019, Heather began to notice extreme foot pain that progressively traveled up her body and attacked her joints. Then the fatigue came and she was losing weight. She was bedridden for nearly two months with no clear diagnosis from local doctors. It wasn’t until January, 2020, when Heather was hospitalized for over two weeks, that the family got answers, announced on the Petals and Produce Facebook page.
“Our fierce fighter Heather has been sick since September and her amazing medical team was finally able to make a diagnosis after two weeks in the hospital.”
Her medical team at East Carolina University/Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, NC, had determined Heather had granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA), formerly known as Wegener’s vasculitis.
Coming to Chapel Hill
Heather began to improve with treatment under Vidant’s supervision. Following her discharge, she learned that the UNC Kidney Center in Chapel Hill is a center for excellence for glomerular disease and vasculitis, under the leadership of Dr. Ron Falk. She decided to establish joint care at UNC so that she could contribute to the ongoing, longstanding research in vasculitis.
During her first visit, Heather met Dr. Vimal Derebail, associate professor of medicine and one of the faculty in the UNC Glomerular Disease and Vasculitis Clinic.
“I was awestruck at Heather’s incredible energy,” said Dr. Derebail. “She had more motivation as someone just recovering from a life-threatening illness than most people when they’re well. Many of her questions focused on what was needed to get better and back to normal but also on what to do to be able to help others with this disease.”
GPA causes inflammation in various tissues, including the blood vessels. It can also impact parts of the respiratory tract and kidneys. It is a rare disease, found in an estimated three out of 100,000 people, and at present has no definitive cure.
Heather’s daughter Hannah wants to change that.
“I’ve always liked missionary work and have led local missions in my county,” said Hannah, who is a junior in high school thinking about becoming a nurse.
Growing up in the Dutch family’s business, with four brothers, in a community of faith, shared responsibilities instill values of charity and generosity. Hannah helped raise funds to dig two wells in Uganda. She also held a yard sale to benefit Bright Futures, an organization that supports education in Beaufort County Schools.
“I want to do everything I can to help out and do my part,” she said. “I knew I wanted to hold a fundraiser that would go toward research of the disease.”
Fundraising for Research
Hannah planned a yard sale. She asked people in the community to donate items, and she promoted the event in the family’s stores in Pinetown and Washington. People in the community responded, dropping off everything from toys, clothing and kitchen items, to sports equipment and furniture. On March 23, when Heather had a follow-up appointment with Dr. Derebail, Hannah came, too. She presented the UNC Kidney Center with a check for $1,200.
However, Hannah wanted to do more. She sold t-shirts at the family’s store, with uplifting messages and inspiring scripture, and she raised an additional $300.
“What feeds Hannah’s soul and captures her attention is loving and serving others well,” Heather said. “Her own ambitions and goals have been surpassed by the support of our loving community. Great things have come about and burdens have been lightened since my sickness and diagnosis of GPA, because of my amazing family, friends, and community. Hannah’s roadmap for life is love, and I can’t wait to see where the roads lead her in the future. “
Today, Heather’s vasculitis is in remission, but Hannah says she won’t be stopping, and plans to do more. “There is no cure, so there’s no reason to stop yet.”
Dr. Falk described her as an extraordinary teenager. “Hannah’s commitment and perseverance is incredibly inspiring, and makes us all want to work harder to find the cause and cure for this disease.”