Kid Captain Bridgette Bissell hopes her ‘fighting spirit’ will help lead Iowa to victory

Bridgette Bissell, Kid Captain for Iowa’s game against Northwestern this Saturday, has autism and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2019.


Jerod Ringwald

Kid captain Bridgette Bissell talks with head coach Kirk Ferentz after receiving a signed football from the team during “Kid’s Day at Kinnick” inside Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 14.

Josie Fischels, Managing Editor

Holly the pet rat crawled in between the folds of Bridgette Bissell’s hoodie, stopping to nestle comfortably in the crook of the teen’s neck. The 18-year-old giggled and stroked the rat’s soft white fur.

Bridgette, this week’s Kid Captain, is a proud owner of eight pet rats, actually, that help her feel relaxed when she’s feeling anxious. At the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, many nurses and doctors know her as “the rat lady.” They’ve even written it on the white board ahead of one of her surgeries, welcoming her back.

Bridgette has frequented hospitals over the course of her life. She was born prematurely and has also been diagnosed with autism and Crohn’s disease. This week, she is the Kid Captain when Iowa faces off against Northwestern in Evanston on Saturday.

While she now lives in Muscatine with her parents and younger brother, Sam, Bridgette was born in Texas — three months too early. At birth, she weighed only 1.5 pounds.

“She didn’t have anything wrong with her except that she was way too small, and her lungs didn’t work. Her eyes were sealed shut still,” Bridgette’s mom, Suzanne, said.

Bridgette’s twin, Madeline, only lived for a few hours. Bridgette had to stay in the hospital for 100 days to undergo several surgeries on her vital organs that hadn’t finished developing.

Bridgette also has autism, and sometimes struggles to articulate what she means and deals with sensory overload. In 2019, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which initially caused her to lose her appetite and a significant amount of weight and caused severe joint pain that put her in a wheelchair for a time. In 2020, she had a feeding tube placed.

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All the while, though, Brigette has had a smile on her face, her mom said. Ahead of the game, someone told Bridgette that her natural “fighting spirit” could help the Hawkeyes win.

During her hospital visits, Bridgette has undergone several scans and dealt with plenty of frightening-looking machinery. But Bridgette is never afraid. In fact, she is fascinated by machines.

“I like all the tests and stuff, especially the imaging, the X-rays, and MRIs, and CT scans,” she said. “I like to know how everything works, especially machines, because I like factories and how things are made.”

One of Bridgette’s favorite moments being a Kid Captain so far has been Kids Day at Kinnick Stadium in August, when she went onto Duke Slater Field and met the Hawkeyes. A highlight of the visit for Bridgette, though, was catching a glimpse of a mechanical room under the stadium that contained enormous air ducts.

Today, Bridgette is a happy high school graduate who loves singing, learning songs on the accordion, and, of course, her pet rats. All of her hobbies help calm her down whenever she feels overwhelmed.

“If I’m feeling stressed, I always can go, if I’m [home], go play music, or snuggle with a rat — or multiple rats,” she said.

At the UI hospital, Bridgette calls floor nine “her floor.” From the front desk workers, to the cafeteria staff, to her doctors and nurses, Suzanne said there are so many people her family considers to be part of “Team Bridgette.”

“It makes it easier to go through something like this when you feel like people really understand Bridgette, especially with Bridgette having autism and maybe sometimes having reactions to things that are not what people are expecting,” Suzanne said. “[At the hospital], I just can relax and know that people are going to understand and do what she needs in that moment.”

With the past few weeks resulting in losses for the Hawkeyes, hope remains that Iowa will find its footing. Bridgette might be the perfect example of the resilience they need.

“She knows about bouncing back from adversity,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said at a press conference ahead of this weekend’s game. “She’s gone through a couple of surgeries and continued to develop Crohn’s Disease. We’re really glad to have a chance to recognize her.”

Bridgette’s message to the Hawkeyes is to keep the “fighting spirit.”

“Go Hawks, you can do it,” she said. “Even though things seem hard and rough, always look on the bright side and keep on fighting. Doesn’t matter if you’re down by a bunch of points or anything, keep fighting to the very end. Put that victory energy out into the universe.”