MARION — Emily Travis of Belknap, who passed on her crown recently after serving as Miss Southern Illinois 2012, suffers from a lifelong disability that is gaining more public attention and treatment.
“I think it needs to be talked about,” she said candidly about suffering from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, which she has mentioned in contestant speeches in her many beauty pageant competitions.
Travis is part Native American. Her mother, who had been a prostitute in East St. Louis, consumed three to four quarts of alcohol daily during her pregnancy with Emily. She had also done heroin previously. When Emily was born, laboratory results showed cocaine, marijuana and alcohol in the tiny infant’s bloodstream.
She scored low in her Apgar, an initial test given to newborns to evaluate physical condition.
“I didn’t cry. I was sweating, which was detoxification. I slept all the time. As I got older, they knew something was not right,” Travis said.
She was adopted by a Southern Illinois family. Her adoptive parents were given a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome when Travis was 12 months old and weighed only 12 pounds.
Growing up, she was a bookworm, scoring high marks academically while avoiding recess activities. She also learned to play piano at age 4 and is fluent in Spanish.
Travis has researched her condition to understand why she differs from many of her peers physically, mentally and behaviorally.
She has also used her pageant participation and success to get the word out about FASD and to offer hope for those afflicted with it.
“Even though I have a disability, it’s only a limitation to my capabilities. Through weakness, we get much stronger. There is always a plan for your life,” Travis said about FASD, which is a leading cause of mental disabilities, according to public health research statistics.
Her life plan is working in the FASD field, getting the word out on prevention and treatment. She was one of 12 people chosen for the Self Advocates with FASD in Action, which began in 2010 to create a unified voice for people afflicted with the condition. She has done public service announcement work in Washington, D.C. And she’s pursuing a major in psychology with goals of eventually attaining a doctoral degree in the field, which will allow for more research into FASD.
“We’re trying to get legislation for more funding and education,” Travis said about her work with SAFA, noting that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics from Atlanta indicate about 20,000 babies born in Illinois over a recent 10-year period have been diagnosed with FASD.
Illinois is stepping up its public heath efforts to combat FASD. Lisa Kienzle of Prevention First Inc., a not-for-profit training and technical assistance service for prevention of drug and alcohol abuse, said she has been retained by the Illinois Department of Human Services to help screen pregnant women and provide intervention if there are signs of alcohol abuse.
“I will be training Women, Infants and Children staff at the 198 WIC clinics throughout the state over the next 18 months. It’s a really good program,” she said about pilot testing at four sites previously with more than 6,000 pregnant women screened and interventions of those with alcohol intakes during pregnancy that led to a 99 percent total abstinence rate over the last three months of those pregnancies.
“FASD is 100 percent preventable. Do not drink alcohol if you are pregnant or planning to be pregnant,” Kienzle said.