Student uses childhood disease as motivation for success, career

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After noticing the limp in Natalie Wilgers’ stride, strangers and acquaintances alike often ask if she hurt her ankle. Some even go as far as suggesting she take the elevator instead of the stairs. When this happens, she usually smiles politely and shrugs in agreement, not wanting to make a fuss.

What those strangers do not know is that Wilgers, sophomore in kinesiology, acquired her trademark left-footed limp as a result of a disease in her childhood that had doctors convinced she would not live to graduate from high school.

However, since she says it would take her too long to explain that to every single person who asks, she just keeps quiet.

In November 1998, Wilgers woke up one morning with a tingling sensation in both her left hand and foot. She told her mother, who assured her that the sleepy sensation in her limbs would go away that morning, and went to Linn Elementary School in Linn, Kan., about 15 minutes away from the family’s house in Palmer, Kan.

The sensation did not go away.

It worsened during the next month and a half, rendering Wilgers, who was in the fourth grade at the time, incapable of doing everyday tasks. When she was in one of her worst states, she secretly paid her 6-year-old sister Miranda a quarter every day to tie her shoes for her.

“It just got to the point where I didn’t say anything about it anymore because I didn’t want anyone to have to worry about me – I accepted it,” she said. “When it started getting worse, everyone just told me that it would go away, but they didn’t know any different – they just thought that I’d hurt myself or something.”

She was given a knee brace and later an ankle brace, assured by her doctor that she had just pinched a nerve or hurt herself.

Hardly able to walk or grab onto anything, the unmistakable severity of Wilgers’ condition was evident on Dec. 31, 1998. Her family was at a New Year’s Eve party when her parents decided to take her to the emergency room, where she was given a slew of blood tests and X-rays.

Finally, after performing a CT scan, the unexpected became a reality: 9-year-old Natalie had a mass on the right side of her brain.

“I think I fell against the doorway and we were just kind of in shock,” said Sharon Wilgers, Natalie’s mother. She said the worst part was “not knowing what was going to happen.”

“You get that dumped on you and 10 minutes later you’re leaving the hospital,” Sharon said.

Concerned that the mass in their daughter’s brain might be cancer, the Wilgers immediately drove to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Lincoln, Neb. The drive, which took longer than the two hours it usually would have because of a sleeting snowstorm, took a toll on the already anxious family.

“We were all just literally sick by the time we got there,” Sharon said.

After several tests and an MRI at St. Elizabeth’s, Wilgers was scheduled to undergo surgery on Jan. 4.

After she was moved from the surgery room after the procedure, a doctor came into Wilgers’ room, where she was with her family, and ripped the bandage off Wilgers’ half-shaven head, saying, “Oh yeah, it’s cancer. It’s cancer.”

“I didn’t understand what that meant,” Wilgers said. “I just remember that my mom started crying and my dad had a tear in his eye and so I just started crying, like, ‘What’s going on?'”

Wilgers left the hospital using a three-point cane. After seeing her older sister walking with it, Miranda asked her if she was really going to use a cane.

“She didn’t touch that cane again,” Sharon said. “I just think she had sheer determination throughout the whole thing not to be different.”

Wilgers started doing physical therapy in Washington, Kan., the morning after her surgery. Going to physical therapy three days a week for three months helped her recover 100 percent of the strength she lost in her left hand, and 75 percent of the strength she lost in her left foot.

From February to August 1999, after enduring three different diagnoses — cancer, brain disease, an arteriovenous malformation – doctors told the Wilgers that Natalie would not live to graduate from high school.

“It was a roller coaster — you’re high one minute and you’re just drug down the next,” Sharon said.

“At that time, I knew that Natalie was very intelligent, had a lot of potential — I just feared that … she wouldn’t get to pursue her dreams. That was a big concern of mine,” said Andrea Woltje, Wilgers’ teacher at the time. Woltje described her student as outgoing, polite and thoughtful.

The final diagnosis for Wilgers turned out to be factor V leiden, a blood disorder that causes blood to thicken, though it was also thought the tumor might have been caused by a stroke. Though it was confirmed that Natalie would live a normal and healthy life, she was told she would not be able to play sports or live a very active lifestyle.

“Natalie still went out for sports and didn’t let [the disorder] get in the way of what she wanted to do …. Sometimes she had trouble doing certain things, but she would be the last one to ever complain about something like that,” said Dana Oehmke, sophomore in family studies and human services and Wilgers’ close friend and roommate.

“I didn’t refrain from trying,” Wilgers said. “I played basketball and volleyball in junior high, and volleyball and track in high school. Most of the time I sucked, but whatever — I did it.”

Not only did she graduate from high school, contrary to doctors’ early predictions, but she was valedictorian of her class and now attends K-State on several academic scholarships.

“She tries hard, she pushes herself to do well,” Sharon said. “So she’s had brain surgery — to have gone through all of that, she never said ‘I can’t.'”

Wilgers said she plans to earn her doctoral degree in physical therapy and hopefully move back to her hometown to get a job with the physical therapist who used to help her.

“It’s just crazy how I think about walking normally would make me the happiest person ever, and most people don’t realize that,” said Wilgers, who said she is interested in working with children, stroke victims and people with sports-related injuries. “I just want to be a physical therapist to help people in the way I was helped.”

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