DOWNERS GROVE – Downers Grove native Lydia Wilson has been fascinated by her Croatian heritage since she was a child, sitting on her grandpa's knees as he told tales about growing up in the country.
She visited Croatia for the first time in seventh grade, with her grandpa, and has been back several times since. This September, she will return to Croatia on a year-long Fulbright Scholarship to study how the country's healthcare system can improve its cancer treatments.
For Wilson, the trip will allow her to strengthen her bond and connection with the country, and help improve its healthcare system.
"I couldn't ask for anything more," she said. "It's what I've wanted my whole, entire life. It's been my dream."
She said her findings after the year of observation might also be applicable in other countries with similar issues.
In Croatia, about the same percentage of people have cancer as in the U.S., she said, but the treatments are only about half as successful.
"Croatia is about 20 years behind America in medical development," she said. "I'm hoping to draw conclusions about how we can best improve Croatia's treatment (to have the) highest impact at the lowest cost."
The Downers Grove South High School graduate is currently finishing a master's degree in Medical Physics at Louisiana State University. Medical physics concerns the use of radiation in medicine, such as a therapy for cancer.
She will be mainly stationed at the University Clinic for Tumors in Zagreb, the capital. She previously visited the clinic during her last trip to the country.
"What I observed was probably similar to what you'd see in a small rural cancer clinic here," she said. "It's not that they're doing things horribly wrong or hurting people, but there's not many resources and it feels very small-time compared to what I'm used to working with here."
She doesn't know exactly what she'll find during the year in Zagreb, but said she expects her observation to fall into one of two categories: either there is not enough access to facilities in the country, or the treatment they're providing isn't successful.
If she finds the treatment itself is inadequate, Wilson will be able to identify red flags and make recommendations on how to more effectively use the radiation equipment used to fight cancer.
"Not everyone has access to shiny new facilities," she said. "I believe that no matter where you live, you should have access to good healthcare. We just need to find a good way to do that and a way that works for everyone."