It's under 40 degrees on a brisk fall night in Austin when the RAW running group begins to gather outside the Deep Eddy Cabaret. Covered in heavy layers and huddled together for warmth, the runners mentally prepare for the fast-paced 1,000-meter intervals that await them on the trail. While some imagine excuses that could prevent them from running a fast pace, one runner in the group has already eliminated a litany of excuses just by showing up.
Colleen Everett is present for this workout and for every challenge life has thrown her way. In February 2018, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and learned she had thyroid cancer. Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease that affects the nervous system, essentially disrupting the flow of information from the brain to the body.
Since she was diagnosed, Everett hasn't let the disease impact her goals, her dreams, or even the weekly running workout with her friends, which is why she is here and ready to run. It would be so much easier for Everett to let her body rest in a safe space, but excuses have never been part of her thought process, even in the most difficult circumstances.
"I've never thought of this as a limit, it's just part of me now," Everett told Glass Staircase at a coffee shop a few days earlier.
Since graduating from Iowa State as a Big 12 Conference scorer in the steeplechase, Everett has been working towards her goal of becoming a pediatrician. She works as a scribe for an Ob/Gyn, and is currently in the middle of the interview process to get into medical school.
Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri with her mother who is a registered nurse, Everett was always interested in medicine. Some of her earliest memories include school breaks spent helping her mother organize her medical supply closet. The constant change and fast pace of helping patients grabbed her attention from the start.
Unexpectedly, Everett became a patient herself at only 25 years-old. In December 2017, she started to have constant, debilitating migraines as well as periodic numbness in her arms and legs. For two long months, the migraines and numbness continued. An MRI revealed the unimaginable. Everett had MS and an intrusive growth which revealed that she had thyroid cancer. While the doctors were able to remove the growth in surgery, the MS will be a constant, unpredictable condition that Everett has to live with for the rest of her life.
“It was a lot. One day you’re a healthy, 25-year-old who ran in college and the next day I had this lifelong diagnosis that is never going to go away that there’s no cure for,” she said. “That was a lot to process, but at the same time I was studying for the MCAT and wanting to apply to med school.”
MS presents itself differently from person to person, but the disease can affect a patient’s vision, cause numbness and tingling in different parts of the body, impact coordination, and sometimes cause paralysis, among other symptoms. Imagining the worst case scenario, Everett and her husband Daniel started to wonder if she should put the rigors of med school on hold and instead pursue a degree in nursing or look into physician assistant programs. But neither of those options followed the path that Everett has always wanted for herself.
“At the end of the day, we decided I wouldn’t be happy if I just went that route and gave up everything essentially. That changed my whole focus because then I had something to work towards and work for as opposed to letting myself wallow in the pity of how awful it actually is,” she said.
“It is what it is. I just take every day and try to make the most of it.”
Since being diagnosed, Everett has completed her medical school applications and even been accepted to multiple programs already. While navigating the application process and working a full-time job, she also has to learn about the impact of the disease on her body, what treatments will work for her, how she will be affected, and when she will experience sudden flare ups.
Following the initial flare up of migraines and numbness that led to the diagnosis, Everett experienced another terrifying flare up a few weeks ago. She suddenly lost vision in one of her eyes and had to wear an eye patch. For three agonizing weeks, she couldn’t see out of one eye and didn’t know when and if her vision would return. During this time, Everett still lived her life without excuses. She showed up to run the weekly RAW workout, hit a pole that she couldn’t see while running, and still went on to nail one of her medical school interviews just a couple days later still sporting the eye patch.
“It probably wasn’t my greatest decision [laughs],” Everett said. “But it makes for a good story.”
Thankfully, a steroid treatment brought her vision back to normal and she can now see out of both eyes again. Her current treatment plan has seen positive results, but the flare up served as an important reminder for Everett that nothing can be taken for granted.
While the unpredictability of the disease presents many challenges and Everett still has to learn what limits are worth pushing, she is also using her experience as a positive in her life. As an aspiring pediatrician, she feels inspired to provide an understanding approach for her patients because she knows the life-changing effects good care can make.
“I have a unique experience of being the patient with a heavy diagnosis. I know what that feels like, which I think is super beneficial. It’s a different level of empathy and relate-ability to the patient that a lot of people don’t have,” she said. “My experience has motivated me more in medicine.”
Another motivation has been knowing friends who have lived with the disease and have gone on to live healthy, functioning lives years after their initial diagnosis. One of her friends received her diagnosis five years ago and gave birth to her first child recently. Many have told her that after three years of perfecting the treatment, the symptoms should become easier to handle. These individuals have been a valuable resource and more importantly, a source of hope for the future. And that future holds big, exciting plans.
Everett and her husband would like to adopt children one day and are currently short-term foster parents. After medical school and residency, she hopes to focus her work on at-risk communities who need medical attention.
While the unknowns of the disease are a constant in her life, Everett’s aspirations are unwavering and more powerful than any diagnosis.
“I can’t live in fear of what’s going to happen. I just have to take it one day at a time,” she said. “I’ve never thought of it as something that limits anything or changes anything.”