When Jillian Zuzolo was just 11 years old, she received a diagnosis that would change her life. The Tipp City girl was rushed to Dayton Children’s after a routine physical showed a dangerously elevated blood sugar level.
“My mom had scheduled my physical for my birthday in September,” Jillian, now 15, said. “I drink so much water because I’m athletic.”
Mom Julie said they knew something was wrong. “Jillian lost 13 pounds in just nine days,” Julie said.
Doctors diagnosed Jillian with Type 1 diabetes and said had she not come in when she did, she likely would have lapsed into a coma overnight. After a four day hospital stay, Jillian was stabilized enough to go home.
“Our lives were really turned upside down,” Julie said. “They were teaching us everything we needed to know about diabetes.”
Without a family history or any experience with diabetes, Jillian and her mom and dad, Mark, as well as older sister Jenna, now 19 and a freshman at Marshall University in West Virginia, and two older brothers, were all shocked and nervous about handling the disease on a day-to-day basis.
“I was really scared when Jillian was first diagnosed,” Jenna said. “I didn’t know what it was or if she was going to live. Unfortunately it also made Jillian grow up fast and it’s a little sad that she lost her childhood.”
Jenna saw her formerly carefree younger sister become suddenly dependent on insulin injections and finger pricks. “I watched my parents get up three or four times a night just to check her,” she said. “And she was also left out of a lot of things, like sleepovers.”
This marked the beginning of a journey for Jenna, who is majoring in biology and pre-med in college. Ultimately, she wanted to find a way to make life easier for her sister, who at one point stopped eating entirely because she hated needles and didn’t want to have to take the shots.
“Technology inspired me to find a way to make her life more normal,” Jenna said.
She ended up designing a wireless glucose testing application for mobile devices that would ultimately win her a college scholarship.
Jenna said her anatomy teacher at Tippecanoe High School worked with his class to develop entrepreneurial projects to be entered in a statewide competition sponsored by Believe in Ohio, a program from the Ohio Academy of science that helps high school students prepare for their futures.
“I thought about all the problems,” Jenna said. “Then I thought about Jillian being on her phone all the time and it came to me that we have this technology at our fingertips and we use it for silly things, like games.It could be used for something good.”
Jenna saw the main problem as complicated testing processes and wanted to find a way to simplify this and tracking blood sugar, using saliva instead of the typical finger sticks.
“I had to research a budget,” Jenna said. “It’s going to take between $80,000 and $100,000 to develop the app. I mapped out everything that would be needed and what companies I would need to help build it.”
Jenna’s app is a monitor that stores and sends data so it’s easier to track A1C (average blood glucose levels). Her invention took her to the Believe in Ohio state competition this year, where she was named a member of the 2015 Class of Young STEM Entrepreneurs in April and awarded a $10,000 college scholarship.
According to Angie McMurry, a science curriculum coordinator for the Darke County Educational Service Center and a state director for Believe in Ohio advocates, Jenna’s mobile app was an amazing project that was “innovative and inspirational.”
“Jenna persevered through challenges and came up with this great project and did it really well,” McMurry said.
2,700 students entered at the local level and only 180 of those ended up going to the state competition. “When they got to state, the kids had a chance to pitch their ideas to judges ‘Shark Tank’ style,” McMurry said.
Jenna said she was confident going into the competition, because she knew her invention was a good one. “I hoped to get a little but I was happily surprised with what I ended up getting.”
Believe in Ohio representatives have approached Jenna about patenting her design and she said she hopes to get it funded so it can be developed.
“Sometimes we look back and wonder why this happened to us,” Julie said. “Jenna couldn’t even look at a needle back then and now she draws blood and gives shots.”
With the love and support of her family, Jillian is now living a more normal life and successfully managing her disease.
“Jenna has an amazing future,” McMurry said. “The sky’s the limit for her. I just hope she brings her talents back to Ohio because I would like her to be in inspiration to others in the state.”