Chronically ill students help others

by Kascha B. Semon | 11/10/98 6:00am

For many college students, personal health falls to the bottom of the daily list of things they must take care of -- how do you have time to remember to take your vitamins when you can barely remember to pick up your print-out before your 10A?

But for dozens of Dartmouth students with chronic health conditions, personal health takes precedence over papers and meetings. In the transition to college life, these students face a set of problems potentially intimidating to teens with similar conditions.

The STAR program at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center helps local junior high and high school students prepare for these Steps Toward Adult Responsibility.

Invisible illnesses

When Kate Creskoff '99 paused to read a flier at a bus stop, she realized how much she would have benefited from a program like STAR and decided her experience could help younger students dealing with similar conditions.

Creskoff, who lives with Lupus, an auto-immune disease affecting the joints and muscles and causing extreme fatigue, said the STAR program addresses teen's "purely psyche-social needs," problems that hours at the hospital or in physical therapy do not overcome.

Working with clinical psychologist Mark Detzer at DHMC, Creskoff helped expand STAR, adding a mentoring program to link high schoolers with chronic diseases to Dartmouth students. Through a forum similar to the Big Brother/Big Sister Program, the teens meet college students and can ask questions relating to their illness, worries about college or parental issues they might not be comfortable asking a doctor or parent.

His interest motivated him to establish the STAR program at DHMC this fall with the help of a grant from Phyllis Wilson, a 92-year-old counseling psychologist. Wilson donated the money in honor of her daughter, who survived childhood polio but died suddenly in an automobile accident.

Creskoff said a majority of the students suffer from invisible illnesses, such as Lupus or diabetes, and peers and teachers do not necessarily know the student is sick or understand the consequences of the disease if they do know.

"I wished in high school that I had a big sign on my head that said 'I'm sick,'" said Creskoff.

Detzer said the teens with whom he works sometimes have troubles with adherence to medical treatment programs or problems with self image, depression or anxiety.

Detzer, a clinical psychologist for 10 years, said working with teens with chronic conditions particularly interests him because "the teen years are a tremendous opportunity to intervene when you can make a difference forever."

Creskoff began working with Detzer in the spring of 1998 through an internship with the Koop Institute. During her internship she helped Detzer set up the mentoring program and compile stories of Dartmouth students in a video intended for high school teachers and administrators.

She also helped a group of teens publish their stories in a short book, "Nine Stories," distributed in the in-patient ward of DHMC and on the Koop Institute's website.

Creskoff currently serves as the student coordinator for the STAR Mentoring Program, now an official group sponsored by the Tucker Foundation. A pre-med biology major with two minors, she hopes to take a year off after graduating to do service.

Creskoff works with a teen who has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a disease with similar symptoms to Lupus. She said STAR matches similar students and not just students with similar diagnoses.

The nature of the program changes depending on the mentor and mentee involved, Creskoff said. Some teens are not well enough to have a mentor, and others with more physically debilitating diseases may require more time in the hospital. Usually the mentor telephones or visits at least once a week.

STAR Lights

Cynthia Vodopivec '98 works with 13-year old Allison. Both she and Allison have Type I diabetes, requiring them to be constantly aware of their blood sugar levels. This means carefully planning meals and taking time every day for insulin shots.

"It's a whole different life ... mentally it's really exhausting," said Vodopivec who, although she was not diagnosed until her freshman year in college, said she feels she can imagine the similar pressures a younger student feels. She and Allison hike to Gile Fire Tower together, watch movies and make dinner occasionally. Vodopivec also said she provides an open resource for Allison to talk or ask questions.

"It's good for me too," said Vodopivec. "It keeps me focused and gives me inspiration."

Another local student, Christina Finnnegan, said she was hesitant to try the program at first until she discovered one of the mentors has the same rare genetic disorder she has. Her doctors had advised her not to play sports because of her condition, but she found out that her mentor, against similar advice, chose to play a varsity sport at Dartmouth.

"That's a really good role model ... someone's taking control of [the disease]," Finnegan said.

Students with chronic illnesses can contact Nancy Pompian or Creskoff directly to become involved.

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