The harshest reality

Theresa Bruskin

Junior English major Lauren Fitch often visits her uncle who recently had a heart and lung transplant at the Cleveland Clinic. “It makes you more aware of how lucky people are,” she said. “Not everything is promised.” PHOTOS BY LESLIE L. CUSANO | DAILY KE

Credit: Dan Kloock

Sitting in the dusky quietness of the Rathskeller, Jon Jensik calmly talks about the weather, his major and how crowded the Student Center gets at dinnertime.

Then, just as calmly, he explains how his father died of cancer Nov. 5.

For students like Jensik, who juggle the demands of classwork and the stress of an ill family member, completing schoolwork on time can be overwhelming.

The situation can seem isolating and out of control — even surreal.

“They feel infallible, then all of a sudden they’re dealing with this, and they don’t know what hit them,” said English professor Michele Wollenzier, who has worked with students in similar circumstances. “College is a whole brand new experience, and you’re dealing with a life crisis.

“It’s a double dose of hard reality, and it does knock them through a loop.”

Racing the clock

Jensik was 7 years old when his father was diagnosed with cancer in his left thigh in 1992 and 16 years old when his father’s leg was amputated in 2001.

“I was so young it didn’t really affect me much,” the senior finance major said. “When he got it the second time and he lost his leg, it was like part of him died.”

His father was tested for cancer every six months, and in 2004, when Jensik was 20, doctors found cancer around his lung. His family was told he only had a year or two to live.

Jensik, who attended Miami University from 2003-2005, then transferred to Kent State so he could live with his family in Stow.

“It was easier for me, but it was a lot easier for my mom,” Jensik, an only child, said.

He said the situation was surreal because his father kept beating the odds.

“The more it goes on, you start to forget that he’s sick and that you have to enjoy the time you have with him,” Jensik said. “I just got so caught up in ‘I need to do this in work and school’ and I just pushed him to the side. I didn’t even think about it.”

In July, Jensik’s father couldn’t breathe and was taken to the hospital, where he found out the cancer was constricting an artery.

“They put a stent in, and he had some radiation but it made him weak so they stopped,” Jensik said. “We knew he wasn’t going to have very long.”

Jensik said he and his parents were hoping his father would make it to his graduation in two weeks.

His father died on a Monday during a week of exams and a 15-page paper due the following week. Jensik said he e-mailed professors to tell them what happened, and most understood his circumstance.

“One professor wanted the obituary for proof,” he said. “I understood why, but it hurt.”

But even though professors gave him all the time he needed, he said he still knew he only had a month and had to get the work done.

“These past couple of weeks have been crazy,” he said. “It hits you when you don’t expect it — it makes it hard to plan my day.

“I still don’t feel ready to study and get all this stuff done because when you study you have to take a step back and think. I’ve been trying to keep busy and the only time I’m not busy is when I’m studying.”

Jensik said he goes out when he shouldn’t because when he’s sitting at home at the computer or studying, he starts to think about his father.

But because he’s graduating so soon, finding study time isn’t the only part of Jensik’s college life that’s affected.

He missed the Career Expo held Nov. 7, which he was going to use to network so he could find a job after graduation. He works at U.S. Bank, which, as a finance major, isn’t a bad job, but he had hoped to find more professional work through the expo, he said.

“I don’t even have time to look for work,” he said. “I have zero time.”

Trying to stay afloat

When Steve Fritch started having heart problems at the age of 28, doctors attributed it to an infection from his youth that made his heart beat harder and his muscles get bigger.

Now, at the age of 42, after four months in the Cleveland Clinic, his enlarged heart and weak lungs have been replaced. But he’s still in the hospital, three hours from his home in Edgerton, where his wife and daughters, ages 5 and 7, live.

Junior English major Lauren Fritch, his niece, lives the closest to Cleveland than any other family member and so tries to visit him often. She said the first time she visited, she was “shell shocked,” but is starting to get used to it.

“He gets paranoid when his machines beep, and he hates the food,” Fritch said. “You almost have to be his mom, which can be difficult.”

But she said it’s when he doesn’t complain that she worries, because that means he’s heavily sedated. Also, just being in the hospital so long is taking its toll.

“He’s over 6 feet tall, and his legs are smaller than my wrist right now. He was so afraid he was going to be shocked by his pacemaker so he wouldn’t move,” she said.

“His quality of life was so low.”

It can be boring to sit in the hospital with him, especially when he’s sleeping or can’t have guests, Fritch said, but someone is always there, and he never wants his guests to leave.

In the middle of everything going on with her uncle, her grandmother (his mother) had a heart attack and was hospitalized. Her father (his brother) exhausted himself driving between the two hospitals, was sent to an emergency room with dehydration. Her maternal grandfather also died recently.

“I felt like I should just drop out of school. Keeping my family in my mind was just overwhelming. My work would just sit in front of me,” Fritch said.

“I would sit through class and not feel like I was really in the class.”

She said her roommates have been especially helpful in distracting her because she said she can’t block out thoughts of her uncle when she knows what he’s going through.

“I’ve stayed pretty on top of my homework and most of it is writing, so when you get in the zone it just works,” Fritch said. “But I think my grades have suffered, I mean how can they not, when you are missing so much class.”

She tries to miss class as little as possible though and once went to visit her uncle from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., when she had class at 4:30 p.m. She made it back in time – but barely.

“I’ve been missing class to be with family, but teachers have been amazing,” she said. “My professors didn’t count absences and let me turn in papers late or electronically.”

For example, at one point she had a paper due in her Brit and English Literature class and she had to ask the professor for extra time.

“I was sweaty the whole way to her office because they had pretty much told my grandfather ‘you have a week to live’ and my grandmother was in the hospital and there was everything going on with my uncle.”

She explained her situation and the professor gave her the weekend to finish. It helped Fritch to relax, but she was still worried she couldn’t finish everything she needed to over the weekend.

“I had to force myself to do work. I told myself, ‘If you can’t get this done, you might was well dropout’ and that’s a hard thing to think when you’re a junior and have a year-and-a-half left,” she said.

But she said she’s never felt alone.

“I’ve always had this huge support system, it made it hard to feel so hopeless. I had teachers helping and friends and of course my family was there more than anything.”

Coping with isolation

Stephanie Cardarelli, a junior business major, said she always gets a little nervous when her mother, who has been in remission for six years, goes to the doctor for her annual breast cancer checkups.

But she has more than that to worry about.

Her father suffers from Crohn’s disease, a chronic intestinal inflammatory syndrome that leaves him weak, unable to walk and often in pain. It can be treated with medication, as Cardarelli’s father’s is, or surgery.

He also suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his experiences during the Vietnam War.

“Everyday I would wake up wondering if he was alive because he wouldn’t move,” she said.

He has been on disability since 2001 and her mother is retired now, Cardarelli said. In the next year, her father is going to move to an assisted living facility in Cuyahoga Falls because he can’t take care of himself, she said. Her mother will move too — to downsize to a smaller home.

Being in the assisted living facility will force her father to get out and talk to people, Cardarelli said. At home, he sits in the den and doesn’t come out. He refused to get a wheelchair, but because he’s a veteran, the American Legion will give him one when he moves.

Still, it will be difficult when her parents move next year, she said, because she’s used to having her life be a certain way, and all that will be over. Cardarelli said she hopes to move back to campus before then because the stress of living at home doesn’t get any easier to cope with.

“I lived in the dorms my freshman year and that’s when I found out my parents were getting divorced. I was able to concentrate more,” she said.

Cardarelli said when she can, she tries to focus on her schoolwork more than anything.

“Getting good grades is one thing I do have control over, so I guess that’s why I push myself to get good grades,” she said. “I hate feeling like I can’t control things when I want to change things.”

But, she said, the stress of living at home can be overwhelming.

“Last fall semester was very bad. My grades dropped, I went out drinking probably four nights a week,” she said. “I think I cried every day. I lost a lot of weight.

“Each year has been hard in general, but that semester really hit me.”

During her freshman year, it was difficult to associate with students who are carefree when she can’t be, she said.

“I think I was depressed because I would lock myself in the dorm room and I didn’t come out. All I did was schoolwork – I didn’t want to be around anyone,” she said. “I think people sometimes just take it that I’m conceited, but that’s not it at all.”

She said her freshman English professor, Michele Wollenzier, helped her to cope because she was willing to work with her and she was considerate.

“She went through so much and I really feel like she was another one God sent to me,” Cardarelli said. “I wasn’t suicidal, but I thought about it a lot and she got me through it.”

Reaching Out

Wollenzier said she can tell when students have stressors in their lives that they carry with them to school.

“I notice a certain kind of energy that a student gives off. You can see a change,” she said. “With Stephanie (Cardarelli), she seemed quiet and sad, like she was going through something.”

Because of the nature and size of her classes, Wollenzier said she gets to know students, talk to them and see their writing, so she notices more problems than other professors might.

“I pick up on something in their paper and I’m direct and I come out and ask them,” she said.

She also said her personal experiences led her to develop an empathetic personality, so she doesn’t judge easily. While she was getting her masters degree, her son was ill. He has had three brain tumors in the last five years.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” she said. “You push it down and you push through it but it’s tiring.”

She said it’s difficult for students in college to deal with such issues and a lot of them fall behind. She said often, students just want someone to talk to, because young people don’t understand or want to listen.

“Some students are downright mean. And you’re already living in this surreal world,” she said. “You’re dealing with it every second, every moment, and sometimes it slips through.”

And students can’t go home to talk to their parents, because they’re going through the same thing, she said.

For Wollenzier, the bottom line is helping students.

“I would rather be used and be wrong than be mean and be sorry,” she said.

Contact student life reporter Theresa Bruskin at [email protected].