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Disease can’t stop UI freshman

BY CHASTITY DILLARD | AUGUST 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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Sitting in her new Rienow dorm room, Meghan O’Connor explained an aspect of her life that only those closest to her fully understand.

“I’m just not used to talking about it,” she said, sitting in a round black chair.

In ninth grade, O’Connor learned she had peripheral neuropathy, in which the body’s nerves do not properly transfer information to the brain. O’Connor often loses sensation throughout her body — especially in her hands and feet.

Grazing her arm with her fingertips, the 18-year-old said she can’t feel the difference between surfaces.

If it had been sandpaper, she wouldn’t have felt the its roughness, she said.

But O’Connor said she won’t let the disease define her life. Despite any struggles brought on by the illness, the environmental-engineering major is a self-proclaimed science and band geek, a cheerleader, and a horse trainer.

During her first year of high school, doctors thought the self-described “angsty teen” was depressed or bipolar.

“I was tired a lot and sick a lot,” she said. “They sent me to a regular doctor and found my white- and red-blood cell count was low.”

Her eventual diagnosis was a relief and torture at the same time. O’Connor was mostly in the dark about the diagnosis, because information on peripheral neuropathy is vastly limited.

On a daily basis, maintaining a healthy temperature is a challenge, because she can’t feel the difference. People nearby must feel her skin to make sure she isn’t overheated.

“It’s like an uncomfortable feeling,” O’Connor said, and she doesn’t get that urge to get out of the sunlight like most people.

One time while swimming this summer, she couldn’t feel the water and it felt like she was floating on air.

“I’m not embarrassed by it,” she said. “It’s not terminal; I’m not going to die. It’s closed a few doors but not all of them.”

She said she finds strength in the famous Franklin D. Roosevelt quotation “… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

“You’re your own obstacle,” she said. “I want to kind of go through it, and 15 or 20 years from now have accomplished all this, and be able to tell others I did it.”

When describing his daughter, Guy O’Connor considers her a very compassionate person about others and their feelings.

“When someone is uncomfortable, she is the first person to help them,” he said.

Chris Haataja, O’Connor’s close friend since high school, said many people didn’t understand her way of dealing with others.

“She’s very deep,” the 19-year-old said. “She has a lot of things that make her cool. She’s just different.”

One support system for O’Connor throughout her life has been horseback riding. As a young rider, she bonded with the horse Allie, a Great Arabian mare. O’Connor said she confided in Allie when she felt she needed someone to talk to.

“I’m not majorly into religion, but I felt like God was giving me my rock back [in Allie],” she said.

Though O’Connor said she used to hide her problems from people, she’s now ready for a change.

“I think people knowing [about the disease] and me being OK with it will help me,” she said. “I need to accept it.”

And now — just three days into her college experience — she said she can handle things on her own.

“I can do it, and it’s OK,” she said.


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