Personal struggles help author feel empathy for others


Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Four days before my first birthday I was in South Peninsula Hospital having surgery for an infection in my neck. From the time I was born I’d been on one antibiotic after another and doctors said I had a weak autoimmune system. After being tested for numerous ailments during the years, I was diagnosed with asthma at age 11 and took a daily Singulair pill and used an inhaler, which didn’t help much. I got my tonsils and adenoids taken out at 13 after having strep throat nine times in one year, but that seemed to have minimum effect.

My freshman and sophomore years were a nightmare for my parents and me. My grades and athletic performance took a nosedive. I went from being one of the best students to a “slacker”; from an active girl to a slug. I struggled in many ways all year long and everyone around me, including my friends, thought I was faking or exaggerating and I became an emotional wreck from worrying about it.

During basketball season, many practices ended with me in tears because I couldn’t breathe and it felt like my heart was going to explode. It got harder as the season went on and even my dad, also my basketball coach, was exasperated with me. Near the end of the season during practice I left the gym because my chest hurt so bad. A teacher alerted my mother, also a teacher, who came to check on me and noticed my neck was unusually large. We went to the local clinic where they drew some blood and sent it to an Anchorage lab.

While our team was in Anchorage for the state tourney, my parents were contacted by doctors who wanted to see me right away and I spent a day going between hospitals and specialists who finally determined I had advanced Graves Disease (hyperthyroidism). Even my resting heart rate was extremely elevated by that point and they told me I could’ve had a heart attack or stroke if not caught in time. I didn’t get to play in any games during state. This disease is uncommon for a young person so all the doctors were very interested in me. I wasn’t allowed to do any physical activity. I gained a lot of weight, which was weird because I had always been thin. I look back at pictures from my eighth and ninth grade years and am shocked because I was so sick looking.

There were two treatment options offered to me. My parents and I decided I’d take Methimazole for one year and see if my thyroid levels stabilized (25 percent chance). The meds made me sick and I couldn’t concentrate on anything in school. At times I felt as though I was going insane. Noises were exaggerated and my mind felt like it was in high gear or fast forward. I was emotional, was having hot and cold flashes and I got sick after eating. I had to have blood drawn every few weeks to check my thyroid levels.

When we saw no progress, we decided for option two, which was to swallow a radioactive iodine pill that would attach itself to my thyroid and ultimately destroy it. I was radioactive for three days and wasn’t able to hug or kiss anyone and had to flush the toilet twice. About four months after my thyroid ablation, I was put on Synthroid and I will need to take it for the rest of my life.

I feel healthy again but have occasional side-effects like severe headaches and nausea and I always feel agitated. My performance in school and sports has improved immensely, however. I feel as though I am finally doing my part and contributing and I’ve become an all-around stronger person. I know it’s hard to understand something like this unless you go through it but it has helped me be more empathetic toward people with serious health issues and disabilities.

It is hard on a person’s self esteem when nobody seems to understand what you’re going through and you cannot explain it to them.

I know that now.

This column is the opinion of Krista Leman, a senior at Ninilchik School.

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