Out of the Hospital + Into the Kitchen: Culinary Student Defies the Odds

May 2021 Update: For Chris Bledsoe '21, walking in this year’s Charlotte Commencement is more than a dream come true — it’s also something of a medical miracle.

Born with mitochondrial disease, a rare and debilitating disorder that affects how cells convert food and oxygen into energy, he spent the first 16 years of his life tethered to a pump that administered life-giving intravenous nutrients.

Despite the difficulty of eating solid foods, he grew up fascinated by cooking; during his many hospital stays, he fell in love with the Food Network and would try to recreate the dishes he’d seen once he was home. In 2016, he decided he needed to live a more normal life, and he slowly weaned himself off the IV nutrients. In 2018, he started at JWU as a first-year culinary student with a dream of working in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Fast-forward to 2021, and he’s graduating ahead of time — thanks to summer internships, including one in France, and a packed course schedule.

Balancing his hard work with the daily stresses of his disease led to a shift of his longterm goals, and he decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Applied Food Science. “This still allows me to be creative with food but offers me a different job structure,” he explains. “I now want to work in research and development. Quality of life is important to me.”

For the first 16 years of his life, Chris Bledsoe was attached to a battery-operated pump that fed him nutrients intravenously to keep him alive. When he tried to eat solid foods, acid reflux would kick in. Chris has been living with mitochondrial disease, a rare genetic disorder where the process for extracting energy from foods is disrupted (among other symptoms). From birth, doctors told his parents that his longterm prognosis was poor. But Chris proved everyone wrong.

Today, the Raleigh native is an 18-year-old first-year College of Culinary Arts student, making meals he longed to create, let alone eat. “While I was in the hospital, my favorite thing to watch was the Food Network. Marathon hours of Rachael Ray and Paula Dean. But it was always with a sense of wanting what you can’t have. When I was released, I would try and recreate the recipes without a recipe, by sensory perception. Always came out pretty good!”

Chris was in more than out of Duke Medical Center because of numerous staph, fungal, and bacterial infections due in part to the permanent IV. By April 2016, he’d had enough. “It was a big push by me. The doctors wanted me to stay on the feeding tube, but I said, ‘I think I’m good here’ and my mother agreed.” Over a course of 6 months, Chris learned to wean himself off the pumped nutrients and to this day does not require the unit to keep him alive.

“In the hospital, my favorite thing to watch was the Food Network. When I was released, I would recreate the recipes by sensory perception.”

Still, he has to be careful. His immune system is vulnerable. And he’s exhausted. “Always at half power. That is the challenge I have — energy loss, muscle fatigue, but I have the drive. My muscles don’t produce lactic acid, so there is constant burning. It takes longer to get back to normal.”

His “normal” is as a culinary student who feels no hunger pangs and is still learning how to eat, what to eat, and when. “I am neutral 100% of the time. I get a sense of being full because of the reflux.”

Karen Hiney, director of health services, says, “I was so impressed with the level of love and support I sensed from his family prior to him starting school. They expressed how amazing it was that he was able to go to college and I assured them that we would be available for him in Health Services for anything we could do for him. As a nurse, I recognized the incredible strides he has made by getting off the intravenous nutrition. I cannot imagine just starting to eat solid foods at the age of 18. I am amazed at how well he is doing!”

In his own words, Chris says he “should have been long gone” on multiple occasions. Chris, a culinary student who was never expected to eat on his own, is pursuing a 4-year degree and a dream of working in a 3-star Michelin restaurant.

Chris and his family chose JWU because of the impressive level of care and commitment — high standards that JWU proudly upholds for all of its students. JWU is fortunate to have such a strong-willed student who continues to defy the odds.

Chris Bledsoe '21 in the kitchen at JWU Charlotte