In 2010, Patrick Staropoli was diagnosed with celiac disease—by accident.

“It was a total surprise,” the 25-year-old South Florida native recalls. “I was being treated for a throat ulcer and doctors found celiac disease during an intestinal biopsy while treating that. It turned out that, while my ulcer was all but gone, the doctor noticed how smooth the walls of my intestines were. He told me that he thought I had celiac disease and had taken a biopsy during the procedure to confirm. After the biopsy and a subsequent blood test both came back positive, I was officially diagnosed with celiac disease.”

Under the microscope

Celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disease triggered by consuming a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye. When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the finger-like villi of the small intestine. When the villi become damaged, the body is unable to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, which can lead to malnourishment.

Celiac disease affects 1 in 133 people, though most are undiagnosed. Left untreated, patients are at-risk for serious health consequences, like other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, thyroid disease and even certain cancers.

Patrick’s case

Staropoli is a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard University and a medical student at the University of Miami. His experience with celiac disease has informed his approach to medicine.

"Celiac disease affects 1 in 133 people, though most are undiagnosed."

“From my own experience with celiac disease, I know that paying close attention is critical. It’s what a patient reports, combined with test results, observations, family history…the whole package. A patient may not have any indication that something is wrong, and health care providers need to pay close attention to the details of each patient.”

Staropoli is busy outside the classroom as well. He was the 2013 Peak Stock Car Dream Challenge Champion. Selected from over 700 entries, he made it to the finals and ultimately won the inaugural challenge. He is now a development driver for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Adjusting to celiac

Staropoli’s advice to someone newly diagnosed with celiac disease is that they have a serious one-on-one conversation with their relatives about their risk for the disease. He himself had several family members who got tested at his urging and who came back positive for celiac disease.

“As a rising figure in the racing world, Patrick is an excellent role model for people with celiac disease,” notes Alice Bast, the President and CEO of Beyond Celiac. “He’s speaking out about celiac disease. He’s one of the many asymptomatic sufferers, but he understands the serious risks to his health if he doesn’t comply with the only known treatment for celiac disease—a 100-percent strict, gluten-free diet.”