By Sarah Rosenblum
The last time the Concordy spoke with Harrell in May 2011, she was lying in a hospital bed in Paris, hospitalized for three months for lupus and kidney failure. Now, she is finally back home in Florida working at a Congressional internship, and also fighting hard to regain her health.
Harrell was initially diagnosed with lupus during her sophomore year, after experiencing mysterious health complications that began during her Union term abroad to China.
“Lupus is an autoimmune disease that attacks all parts of your body,” she explained. “Your immune system can’t tell the difference from good versus bad germs. While I experienced joint and muscle paints, I didn’t realize the severity of what was going on inside my body, and was told my lupus was mild.”
During college, Harrell was often sick, literally going from class to the hospital and back and forth. She was determined to keep up with her normal college schedule, and she maintained good grades, graduating in June 2010.
After graduation, she moved to France. While she would periodically check in with her doctors at home, her condition seemed stable as she adjusted to her new life.
Everything changed on the night of her 23rd birthday.
“The bottom half of my body had swollen up to three times its normal size,” she says. “I assumed the swelling was associated with my lupus, but three days later I went to the doctor and was immediately sent to the emergency room.”
Harrell was initially surprised that she was hospitalized.
“While I had some aches, I thought I was fine since I’m so used to having these minor pains from lupus. This is a common concern for people with autoimmune diseases. Since we have chronic pain that we eventually get used to, we don’t often realize when it is something more serious to look into.”
Harrell’s body had swollen up because her kidneys were failing her, unable to process extra fluid which soon surrounded her heart and lungs. “Over the following weeks they had to drain out all the extra fluids; I was down to less than 90 pounds and was in the intensive care unit.”
But after being there for a few days, she suffered from a sudden seizure. Her body had become so weak and her immune system was failing her, so her body couldn’t fight off an infection, which rapidly attacked her body. The doctors had to put her in an induced coma for twelve days to stabilize her condition. She suffered from a heart attack and stroke, underwent chemotherapy and, at the end, had to relearn how to walk and eat again.
“The doctors literally had to reboot my entire body,” she says. “They saved my life.”
To make matters more complicated, Harrell wasn’t allowed to return home to the U.S. until she was fully stabilized. “Our kidney’s work 24/7 to take out all the toxins we get in our bodies,” she explained. “To stay alive I have dialysis three times a week for four hours. This has become my life.”
In between her dialysis sessions, Harrell remains active, interning for a congressman.
“I feel the need to help others because of my situation. My resolution for 2012 is to do 2,012 hours of community service.”
Harrell says she is incredibly grateful for the amazing support of the Union community.
“I feel lucky to be a part of such a great community through Union,” she says. “Every day I would receive emails, cards and Facebook messages. It really lifted my spirits and I believe in my heart that this positive energy helped heal me.”
Harrell’s father is also a Union alum. “My dad always told me how great the Union community was, and it meant a lot to him to see that this is still such a supportive group of people,” she said.
While Harrell’s schedule currently revolves around her dialysis treatments, she is hoping that one day she will receive a kidney transplant, which would enable her to be free from scheduling her life around her disease. Her brother and two close friends, also Union alums, have offered. The testing process to check on blood type and kidney match is just beginning, but could take years to find a match.
“I want to express my appreciation to all the support the Union community provided, and I want to reach out to other Union students with a wide range of disabilities helping to serve as an advocate as we spread awareness about all these important causes.” Ewo is an empowering role model for all, determined to reach out and help others while she still fights her own battle for her health.
Harrell was recently selected to serve as a National Kidney Foundation advocate. The foundation is flying her to Washington D.C. on March 8 ( National Kidney Day), to participate in a training program which educates advocates about becoming involved in federal legislation for kidney disease, dialysis and transplantation. She will have the opportunity to meet with congressmen, and have her voice heard by those who can help make a difference.