Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.  -George Iles

Sunday, September 20, 2009

School Gives Chronically Ill Students a Chance

CHICAGO - Cecilia Reyes stepped onto the auditorium stage, a bit unsteadily. Her legs were tired. She was so nervous, she hardly smiled.


She carried with her all the months spent in the hospital or holed up in her parents' Chicago bungalow, an intravenous line hooked into her arm as she tried to do her college work.


Now this 26-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis was about to take a careful but determined walk across a stage to receive her diploma, albeit four years later than she'd planned. Her parents, grandmother and siblings watched from the balcony, bracing themselves. Reyes wanted no help — no walker, no arm to hold.


"This time," she said, "I wanted to be like everybody else."


And this time, she was.


In another era, or even at another university, the illness that afflicts Reyes might have prevented her from taking this walk across the stage. Faced with the rigors of college, chronically ill students often end up having to take incompletes when they get sick, forfeit tuition and drop out. Others never even enroll.


Unique program
But DePaul University has responded to the needs of Reyes and others like her with a program designed to help these students — the only one of its kind, according to school officials.


Through DePaul's School for New Learning, these students can take courses in the classroom or online. They also can take time off, even abruptly, when the symptoms of their illnesses hit, and finish coursework later with no penalty or tuition loss.


Reyes was just the 16th student to graduate from the program, and the first among the classmates who'd become some of her closest friends. She knew this slow walk across the stage was for them, as well.


It was for Teresa Stallone, her "student buddy" who returned to college years after health problems, and the stigma surrounding them, led her to drop out of high school.


It was for Lacey Wood, who anxiously awaits her own graduation so she can get a job to help her parents, who lost their California home because of huge medical debt they took on after Wood underwent heart and kidney transplants.


It was for Derrick Winding, a former Marine who has bipolar disorder, as well as MS; he promised his mother he'd go to college if she let him join the military.


But Cecilia Reyes' moment on the stage was also a triumph for a woman who had a very personal stake in the program's success — a woman who watched her intelligent son struggle with a mysterious ailment that came and went and threatened to derail his life. It was she who started DePaul's Chronic Illness Initiative four years ago.


This initiative, says Lynn Royster, tells these students that the university believes that they are truly ill, that they are not making excuses. And one more thing: "We think you can succeed."


Feeling helpless
Royster had watched her son fade throughout his teen years, like a light slowly dimming. Patrick Holaday had always been a good student. But after his illness hit in 1986 at the age 12, he often just lay in bed in their suburban Chicago home, sleeping hour after hour.


His mother sought help and advocated for her son as best she could. But no one seemed to know what was wrong and, even worse, his mother says, they felt judged — by doctors, by teachers, by other parents and even members of their own family.


Here she was, an accomplished woman, a college professor with a law degree, a master's and a Ph.D. She was used to digging for answers and finding solutions.


But this time, as a mother grasping for answers, she felt helpless. She desperately wanted her son to get better, wanted him to be able to participate in the process of learning that he loved so much.


"There has to be something I can do," she thought. "I have to fix this."


Royster moved with her son to Arizona, without her husband and daughter, in an attempt to deal with her son's severe allergies. There, he was diagnosed with severe chronic fatigue syndrome.


They tried special diets to eliminate food allergens and ridded the house of any other potential toxins.

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