Sunday, May 17, 2009
Chron's Patient Inspired by Crohn's Disease Experience Finds Career
Julie Katrichis lay on the bathroom floor in her parents' West Allis house and screamed in pain.
It was December 2004. She was a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, about to start finals week. Her Crohn's disease had been causing her immense pain for two months, but she'd tried to stick it out at school.
Katrichis went to the emergency room. She wouldn't return to UWM for two years - after months-long stays in the hospital, multiple surgeries and various complications.
When she graduates Sunday with a bachelor's degree in nursing, her diploma will represent just one piece of her wrenching and enlightening education in health care.
Her story is one of many that will play out Sunday and this week, as many area colleges and universities host commencement exercises.
Katrichis, now 24, was in her late teens when she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease - a type of bowel disease that inflames the digestive tract, causing severe diarrhea and abdominal pain.
"It's like you're being ripped apart from the inside," she said. "You feel embarrassed, you feel weak, and you hope it goes away."
When it came time for Katrichis to attend college, UWM made the most sense - she could live at home and manage her health with the support of family. At first, she wasn't sure what she wanted to study.
Life would intervene to help her decide.
After her December 2004 visit to the emergency room, Katrichis needed a colectomy - surgery to remove her colon. Complications in the surgery led her to contract pancreatitis. Her life for the next two years was a chaotic and painful series of procedures. Each step seemed to lead to another problem requiring another procedure, another specialist or unit.
"It was so chaotic, and I was still pretty shy about advocating for myself," she said.
The people who provided most of Katrichis' care and spent the most time with her were nurses. Her best nurses at Froedtert Hospital were "saints" who became part of a second family. They were genuine. They let her make decisions about her care.
Katrichis said good nurses are "ones who are willing to listen. You think that's a given, but it wasn't."
The bad nurses - and she had some of them - are task-oriented, just trying to get things done without speaking to the patient.
"It's really scary when a nurse comes into a room and rushes and does not clue you in to what's going on," Katrichis said.
By fall 2006, Katrichis was ready to go back to school, but she faced challenges. She was still physically weak. Just taking a shower exhausted her. Hospital bills had left her family with a heavy financial burden, particularly because her father had been laid off not long before she had her first major surgery. The application process for the nursing program was intimidating and complex.
With the help of her mentor, Nigel Rothfels of the office of undergraduate research, Katrichis navigated the system. She got into the program and won a $10,000 scholarship for students with Crohn's from biopharmaceutical company UCB.
As she embarked on her clinical placement, Katrichis found herself sharing her experience with her cohort of classmates in the program. She has already started exercising her power as a patient advocate before she officially becomes a nurse.
"She just really treated all the patients individually," said Theresa Grotkiewicz, a clinical instructor at UWM. "She never made assumptions and really listened to what they were saying."
Katrichis is graduating with a bachelor's degree in nursing. She'll soon start a job as a cardiac care nurse at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare-Elmbrook Memorial.
In the run-up to the big day, her father left her a voice mail message every day with a commencement countdown.
"It's definitely this huge accomplishment - it's not just 'I'm graduating.' This was my goal," she said. "To make it just feels incredible."