If pain is weakness leaving the body, 21-year-old Heather Cox has every reason to flex.
After about six years of dealing with the symptoms of ulcerative colitis – a very serious and extremely painful disease, Cox is finding life far more manageable after receiving a complex surgery last August that has allowed her to regain complete control of her life – a life that was temporarily bogged down by the debilitating illness.
The Center for Disease Control marks colitis as an abnormal response to the body’s immune system, upon which the immune system mistakes food, bacteria, and other materials in the large intestine as foreign substances, and thereby attacks the cells of the intestines.
This causes deep ulcerations and blood loss that often cause weight loss, fatigue, and anemia, among other symptoms.
But, while Cox was a victim of these symptoms and more, one might never guess it now. As the young lady continues to pursue her degree in theater at the University of Arizona, she is all smiles, energy, and optimism.
However, when the disease was at its worst, staying positive was not always the easiest task for the former Canyon Del Oro graduate.
At 15 years old (on Valentine’s Day, nonetheless), Cox began to endure her first symptoms of colitis.
Every morning she was nauseas, and every meal came with subsequent sickness. Frequent hospital visits and tests meant she was missing class. She watched her grade point average plummet from a 3.9 to a 2.9.
Her social life began to take a hit as well, and was sometimes limited to browsing Facebook from her hospital bed, where she would read about others complaining of headaches or petty drama.
She was in extraordinary amounts of pain.
It was a time filled with emotions.
“When I was younger I was really angry about it,” said Cox. “I thought, ‘Why me? I don’t deserve this.’ I definitely went through all the stages of coping.”
Cox says she was even upset with her mother, who also had colitis years prior, and whom she blamed for passing on the genetic disease to her. For her mother, Corrine, the disease turned into colon cancer, and though she would eventually beat it, the fear of cancer was another thing to add to Cox’s list of worries.
But as time passed, Cox’s anger faded, though her symptoms remained. In large part, she had simply grown used to the lifestyle: a very limited diet, routine blood draws, liver checkups, colonoscopies, steroid injections, chemotherapy, and more.
“That became my norm,” she said.
But there were other things she began to realize during her long battle with colitis: nobody was to blame for her illness, it did not define her, and she was still very much fortunate in life.
“I realized how backwards my thinking had been,” said Cox. “I learned to keep a positive attitude about it.”
In addition to the unyielding support of her mother, as well as her friends, Kate Nienhauser and Amber Justmann, who spent countless hours at her bedside, Cox saw something during one of her hospital stays that shed further light on her situation.
“I was put in a room with eight or nine year olds that never got to leave the hospital,” she said. “For me that was very humbling – I see all these other people who have a desire to live. I was very fortunate in the opportunities I was given, and the fact I was able to leave the hospital.”
Last August, though, Cox would find herself back in the hospital after she had one of her worst episodes ever.
“My quality of life was zero,” said Cox. “I got to the point I was losing so much blood I was severely anemic. I couldn’t leave bed – I was so weak. The only thing I could eat without getting violently ill was cooked chicken breast with no seasoning and cooked spinach.”
Having exhausted all other healing and treatment methods, Cox asked her doctors for surgery that would remove her appendix, colon, and rectum and substitute a “J Pouch,” made up of her small intestine to serve as a sort of holding tank.
The three-part surgery was nothing to be taken lightly.
“I was in surgery from November of 2012 to February of 2013,” said Cox, who had to take the semester off college to deal with the issue.
She is still adjusting to the after effects.
“I tire a lot easier, and I am not in the best physical shape after being on bed rest for six plus months,” she said. “I eat a balanced diet, and have to drink two times the water a normal person does. I dehydrate easily since my colon isn’t there to absorb water.”
Despite that, Cox says she is feeling “fantastic” in comparison to years prior. And now, nothing will stand in her way of continuing her education, future career, and ongoing happiness.
While an unpleasant one, the experience served as a learning opportunity for Cox.
“I learned to love myself during this process, and I learned that attitude really is everything,” she said. “There is always hope.”
As she continues her schooling, Cox was the recent recipient of a $1,500 Steve Engle Memorial Scholarship from the Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Cox plans to finish her bachelor’s degree in theater and pursue her master’s or doctorate in theater education.
The scholarship recognizes individuals based on academics and merit. Cox’s persistence also stood out.
“Heather’s health crisis, which forced her to drop out of college for a period of time, would be difficult for anyone to handle,” said chamber President Dave Perry. “But she has persevered to go back and get her education. That stood out to me. Sometimes, in the face of everything, it’s easy to quit. She’s not a quitter. That counts.”