Illness fuels passion for science


Abigail Turowski woke up one day feeling like a human pretzel.

"There I was jerking and shaking," said Ms. Turowski, recalling the incident that occurred when she was 12. "It was very bizarre."

The 37-year-old Columbia resident suffers from a neurological disease called dystonia, in which severe muscle spasms attack the body. Despite her illness, Ms. Turowski has left little in life unchallenged.

"Dystonia was never viewed as a tragedy," she said. "Just another problem to overcome."

Now the forensic anthropology consultant uses her illness as a springboard to study how people coped with broken bones and other disabilities during the 17th century.

Before she did her research, few had looked at the ramifications of such things, Ms. Turowski said. She is looking for clues to how disabled people lived hundreds of years ago by looking at their skeletal remains.

The structure of those bones can gives clues to how well they ate, what type of work they did -- particularly whether it was physical labor -- and their life spans, she said.

Ms. Turowski's co-workers said that she is an ambitious scientist who doesn't let much stand in her way. "She's a very determined and persistent individual," said Douglas Ubelaker, curator of physical anthropology for the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "When she's handed a project, she clings to it."

But Ms. Turowski was not always so determined to succeed. Childhood was a lonely and confusing time for her.

Rather than attend school, "I'd sit out in the woods," she said. "I was very isolated. There were very few people I felt comfortable speaking to."

Like many people with dystonia, Ms. Turowski didn't know what was wrong with her at first. According to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation in Chicago, dystonia is a difficult illness to diagnose and many doctors confuse it with Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis.

Dystonia can affect many parts of the body or a certain part such as the eyelids, in which muscle contractions force people to close their eyelids tightly for periods that may last hours at a time. The disease can also take the form of writer's cramp, during which muscles contract in the hand and forearm muscles while a person is writing.

"Nobody knew what was going on," Ms. Turowski said. "When you're growing up with it, you're diagnosed as being crazy."

Unable to come up with a diagnosis, her physician sent her to the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, a mental health facility in Baltimore. It wasn't until she was 14 that Ms. Turowski learned the true nature of her disease when her father met a Johns Hopkins pediatric neurologist.

A week later, Ms. Turowski was diagnosed with dystonia.

"I was absolutely relieved," Ms. Turowski said. "I was vindicated -- I wasn't crazy. There was a genuine diagnosis and I knew I could work from there."

Doctors still don't know what causes dystonia, but feel certain it involves the basal ganglia, a group of interconnected regions in the center of the brain. No one knows how many people suffer from dystonia, but the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation has about 20,000 people on its mailing list.

Since her diagnosis, Ms. Turowski has undergone brain surgery to control the muscle spasms that used to rack her entire body. But the operation, which involved frozen nitrogen, damaged nerves that control her speech. She now talks in a breathy whisper that is sometimes hard to understand.

Ms. Turowski attended the University of Maryland College Park, where she earned a bachelor's degree in communications after six years of hard studies with little tutorial help. Always interested in the past, she earned a master's degree in applied anthropology last year from the university and now pursues a doctorate degree in forensic anthropology -- the study of skeletal remains.

In 1989, Ms. Turowski was able to realize her dreams of becoming an anthropologist. Laid off from her job as an administrative assistant with Martin Marietta Corp., she joined an archaeological dig at Patuxent Point, near Solomons Island. There, she helped excavate and sort human bones. "I was hooked," Ms. Turowski said. "The next three years I spent on my knees digging in the dirt."

Dr. Julia King, an archaeologist who oversaw the Patuxent Point project, said Ms. Turowski fit right in with her colleagues.

Within weeks of working at the site, "Her disability was no longer an issue," Dr. King said. "She works hard to overcome obstacles, whether it's her disability or in her field."

"Bones are dynamic," Ms. Turowski said. "They constantly replace themselves in response to the stresses you place on them."

In addition to earning a doctorate in anthropology, Ms. Turowski is interested in developing technology to help the disabled -- such as using electrical stimuli to help paralyzed people walk. "Anybody with a disability, you must never feel sorry for," Ms. Turowski said. "They're not victims. They're teachers. They teach people how to live because they appreciate life more."

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