Losing her job at Mrs. Cavanaugh’s chocolates as a 16 year old was one of the best things that could have ever happened to Virginia Hooper. It led her to a different job and her true passion.
She thought she had communicated with her manager that she needed the day off for a track meet. But somehow the manager didn’t get the message and fired her.
Hooper, who now lives in Tooele, was a straight-A student then at Bingham High School. The firing devastated her. However, it ended up being fortuitous when she landed a job at a nursery in Sandy. She worked seasonally at the nursery for eight years. While there, she learned about plant propagation, floral arrangement design and several other skills.
“I loved working the greenhouses,” Hooper said. “There were rooms of flowers and I enjoyed helping customers find just the right ones to take home.”
Hooper had her interest in horticulture piqued as a 15 year old. She joined her uncles one summer working for the Bureau of Land Management in remote Utah locations, gathering native seeds. The state bought the seeds and used them to re-seed areas that had been burned by wildfires.
“We’d scoop up seeds as fast as we could as we got paid by the pound for them,” she said.
After graduating from high school, Hooper attended Brigham Young University in the mid-’90s. She studied international relations, hoping to work for an embassy or the Peace Corps. But during her last semester of college, she took a residential landscape design course to fill a random elective credit. She fell in love with the subject.
When Hooper graduated in 1997, she took a job working for the travel department for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. But in 2000, she decided that since she had enjoyed her landscaping class so much, she would apply at the landscape architecture and environmental planning department at Utah State University.
“Some people were puzzled when I changed careers from international relations to landscape architecture,” she said. “I told them that speaking about plants and ecology was an international language that dealt with current affairs.”
A month after applying, Hooper saw a poster advertising an internship at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University. She decided to apply.
“My manager at work knew Peter Lassig, who was the head gardener at Temple Square,” Hooper said. “She arranged for me to meet with him.”
Hooper visited with Lassig for an hour and he told her to do whatever it took to get the Harvard internship. He said it would be an incredible experience. She followed through and was accepted into the program in the summer of 2000. She sold her car to pay for the airfare and made the move to Massachusetts.
While at Harvard, Hooper worked in the bonsai plants area.
“There was a specialist from London who came to take care of them,” she said. “He was a British chap with wiry hair who wore plaid pants. It was like he was doing surgery, as he used his dental tools to clip the roots, teasing them out.”
Hooper explained that the man’s full-time job was to travel the world taking care of bonsai collections. The Harvard collection includes bonsai trees that date back to the 1700s that were gifts to the U.S. from Japanese ambassadors.
She was enjoying the Harvard internship, yet there was something going on inside of Hooper that was causing rising concern.
When Hooper worked for the LDS Church travel department, she woke up one morning feeling terrible. She began to struggle with extreme tiredness and headaches. The struggle continued during her internship. She often found herself falling asleep on other interns’ shoulders in the van on various area tourist trips. She didn’t let her problem get in the way, though. While at Harvard, she got accepted into the USU graduate program and would start in the fall.
Hooper’s extreme tiredness persisted in graduate school. She would feel like she was going to fall asleep and knew there was nothing she could do to stop it. To stave off sleep, she would pace the room, eat food, walk around — anything to stay awake.
“I was afraid I’d fall asleep on dates so I stopped dating for a while,” she said. Hooper also had elusive joint pain that came and went.
In addition, if she felt heightened emotion, she’d briefly feel a sensation like muscle weakness. One night, she was talking to her sister and one side of her face stopped moving. She could not get the side of her face to move in sync with the other side for five minutes. She went to see a university doctor who yielded no diagnosis.
Despite these struggles, Hooper graduated with her Master’s Degree in 2003. Her health challenges continued and it became her new normal. It wasn’t until 2015 that she finally started to get answers.
A friend recommended a homeopathic doctor who suggested she might have Lyme disease. Her family doctor had her take a blood test to determine if she had the illness. The result was negative, although all the markers for Lyme disease were present.
Hooper decided to get a second opinion from a specialist. She drove to Bountiful, but when she arrived, the secretary said she made a mistake in setting up the appointment. The doctor was retiring and would not take new patients.
“I pulled the Tooele card and explained that I’d driven a long way to see him and was wondering if there was any way they could make an exception for me,” she said.
A physician’s assistant at the office came to her rescue. He Skyped the doctor. Within 25 minutes she had a diagnosis: it was Lyme disease.
The doctor explained to Hooper that it’s easy to get a false negative on the blood test because Lyme bacteria can hide from white blood cells. The Western Blot test measures the interaction of bacteria and white blood cells.
“The bacteria are often in a cocoon-like dormant state,” Hooper said. “It’s only when the bacteria become active that they feed on the red blood cells. That’s why I suddenly got headaches and became tired.”
Hooper served a mission for the LDS church to Sweden from 1995-1997. The doctor thought this was where she contracted Lyme disease because of an illness she had had that lasted two weeks. He prescribed an antibiotic, Doxycycline, which she took for six months.
It takes time for antibiotics to take effect on Lyme disease. The bacteria has to come out of their cocoons so the white blood cells and antibiotics can kill them. It took more than 18 months before Hooper started to feel normal.
Her illness went undiagnosed for 20 years. She worked through the loss of what her life could have been like had she not contracted Lyme disease.
“Prior to my illness, I led a very active lifestyle,” she said. “I loved to run, rock climb, sky dive, etc. I think not knowing the actual diagnosis helped me live a fuller life, as I had no excuse to give up. I had my whole life ahead of me.”
Hooper focused on what she could do, despite a debilitating illness. During the 20 years of not knowing what was afflicting her, she completed an internship at Harvard, finished a master’s degree, presented guest lectures on landscape design at various colleges, and obtained her Master Gardener’s certification through Tooele’s USU Extension Office. After finishing graduate school, she worked as a head designer for a landscape company.
Since then, Hooper married and had three children. She currently runs her own landscape consultation business. She has been undeterred and hasn’t let her illness get in the way of a full life.
When asked what advice she would give to individuals struggling with an undiagnosed illnesses, Hooper said, “Don’t give up looking for answers. Be honest and talk with people about what’s going on. Focus on what you can do despite your illness.”