The Heart of Libby

Second-year ECC student thrives despite having POTS, a condition where the body cannot regulate heart rate and blood pressure


Hannah Soukup

Libby Mattern, 19, attends her second year at ECC with a new enthusiasm after learning to cope with POTS throughout first year.

Hannah Soukup, Managing Editor

Imagine every single time you stand up, you feel like your legs are jello, or when you exert sudden energy into moving, your world begins spinning. This is what second-year Elgin Community College student Libby Mattern had to go through since summer 2021, and she still continues to face some of these struggles today. 

On May 31, 2021, Mattern, 19, was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, or POTS, a dysautonomia disorder (a disorder of the autonomic nervous system). POTS causes a reduced lack of blood to flow to the heart when an individual stands up from sitting or lying down. The same may occur from other quick movements. 

Typical POTS symptoms include dizziness, fainting, heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath and/or shaking or sweating. Some other common symptoms may include digestion issues, headaches, vision issues, purple hands and feet, fatigue and memory loss. 

A week before diagnosis, Mattern passed out for the first time due to POTS. She was horseback riding and lost consciousness while being on her horse. She fell off the side of the horse and hit the ground. 

“At first, I felt really scared and [was] like ‘what the f— just happened?’” Mattern said. “My next immediate reaction was ‘how’s my horse?’ After that, I wanted to strip down naked and dive into an ice bath; I was so overheated. I didn’t know that [this situation] was just the tip of the iceberg for me.” 

After the incident, Mattern went to get bloodwork done and ended up passing out. She didn’t pass out from the needle; instead, when she stood up from the bloodwork. The quick motion caused her to faint. 

“My parents thought I was having a heart attack because of the chest pain [I felt],” Mattern said. “I thought ‘this is how I’m going to die.’ The panic attack from fainting did not help [either].” 

Mattern was rushed to the hospital. The doctors first believed her symptoms were caused by her pre-existing anxiety, but they were from POTS. Mattern was diagnosed with a “primary” form of POTS. There are two forms of POTS, “primary” and “secondary.” The “primary” form of POTS means that there are no identifiable medical conditions that may have induced the disorder, while the “secondary” form means there are. 

Within 14 days of Mattern initially being diagnosed with POTS, she passed out five times. When entering her spring semester at ECC in 2022, Mattern passed out 12 times on campus. She had to use a walker because of the weakness she felt in her legs and muscles. 

“There were weeks upon weeks of passing out everyday or multiple times [a day],” Mattern said. “This semester [Spring 2023] and last semester [Fall 2022] I have not passed out on campus once.” 

Besides the symptom of fainting, Mattern has had to learn to cope with the gastrointestinal issues, high heart rate and chest pain POTS caused her. At a point, 1/100 meals she ate she would throw up. Learning to cope was not an easy task. The difficult symptoms Mattern faced caused her to withdraw from several classes and focus on bettering her mental and physical health. 

“I was in denial [about my condition] for 1-1½ years,” Mattern said. “I realized that my circle of thinking wasn’t helping me achieve any of my goals.” 

Mattern ended up receiving therapy for not only how POTS impacted her mentally, but for prior issues she struggled with. She found focusing on her mental health to greatly improve how she coped with POTS. She also felt more inclined to improve her lifestyle in order to ease the symptoms of POTS. She found that lifestyle changes helped relieve POTS symptoms and although some medications eased her discomfort, it was difficult to find one that would work long term. 

“The main treatments for POTS are exercise, diet and lifestyle changes,” Mattern said. “There are a few medications [for POTS], but they’re not very great for long-term use. I’m on medication for raised blood pressure, and I now see an actual specialist for POTS.” 

Now, Mattern’s symptoms have improved. They are not fully gone, but certain symptoms such as the chest pain and fainting episodes have relieved themselves. She still suffers with fatigue and feels light-headed when she stands up, but as time has elapsed, she has learned to cope with her illness. 

“I think that it will never fully go away,” Mattern said. “I know a couple people in their twenties and thirties [still coping] with POTS symptoms. [For others with POTS], figure out how you’re going to mentally and emotionally cope with the symptoms.” 

Mattern is now back to school full-time and is staying involved with the ECC community. She was a contributor to creating the new Fiber Arts club, a club dedicated to knitting, crocheting and other fiber related crafts. She is also in the TRIO program. 

TRIO is a grant-funded program that provides support to students with disabilities or other factors that may make their college experience difficult. While being in the TRIO program, Mattern met Jessica Haack, a TRIO advisor who has maintained a close relationship with her since Mattern attended the New York trip with TRIO over spring break in 2022. 

“She was originally enrolled with a different coordinator,” Haack said. “A little bit overtime, we got closer. She was on the New York trip and is always stopping [in my office] to talk.” 

Haack has gotten to watch Mattern grow over the last year as her health issues improved. Mattern’s grades suffered the consequences of her health, and as time has elapsed, her grades have improved tremendously. By Mattern investing more time to improve her mental health, her overall well-being has also seen improvements. 

“I think her drive to be successful, paired with her health issues improving, has had a major effect on her grades,” Haack said.

Mattern’s perseverance through her struggles with POTS has allowed her to go back to school and begin reaching towards success. As of now, she hopes to go to law school and become a lawyer. She wants to advocate for women’s reproductive rights. When she puts her mind to something, she gets it done, and this applies to her academic and personal life.

“If she hadn’t preserved, she wouldn’t have [had] a drive to come back [to ECC] and try again,” Haack said. “She’s never afraid to reach out and ask for help. She’s almost like a quirky, tangled up ball of fun.” 

Mattern has also formed a close bond with the English professor Allison Douglas. Mattern was first introduced to Douglas when she took her LTC 99 course, Developmental Reading and Writing in the fall of 2021. Douglas saw Mattern at her lows, and since, has watched her grow into the person she is today. 

“So when she was in my class, she was struggling with POTS,” Douglas said. “She was out of class a lot, had a walker, [was] faint and was at a really low time. [She’s] now starting to understand what she’s capable of and is able to focus and engage.” 

Mattern has continued to figure out her needs and what she wants out of life. She began ECC at her lowest and has fought for overcoming the symptoms of POTS. 

“[Libby’s] really stubborn and an excellent advocate for herself,” Douglas said. “She’s willing to experiment with her major and try new things with her health. She’s creative, passionate, determined and kind. She’s the poster child for why we have community college.” 

Currently, Mattern has continued to improve her grades and focus on what she enjoys, inside and outside ECC. Recently, she was able to obtain her license again. In Illinois, if you have passed out within six months, your license will be revoked. As of late March 2023, she received her license again and is able to fully enthrall in her interests. 

She enjoys playing instruments and singing. She is a part of the ECC choir and plays the guitar, the banjo and the mandolin. She is self-taught in playing these instruments and even writes her own music. 

“I never play songs for others,” Mattern said. “It’s nice having something for myself. I’m a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.” 

Another of Mattern’s hobbies includes horseback riding. She has been riding horses since she was 12-years-old and has bonded with her horse Levi. 

“I basically became an owner [to Levi],” Mattern said. “I come out whenever I want and take lessons and ride.” 

POTS has deeply impacted Mattern’s mental and physical health, but as she has grown to cope with her illness, she can continue living the life she wants to live. Mattern gets to enjoy her hobbies and ensure that she takes care of her creative, social and academic needs. She has been determined to prioritize herself in order to remain sound and healthy. 

Although the last couple years have been incredibly difficult, she views her struggles as building blocks to forming a better life. 

“Life is hard, really hard, but you have got to remember that what you’ve been through doesn’t define you,” Mattern said. “It won’t make or break you, it’ll build you.”