Utah college student shines despite rare, ravaging disease
Kerry Jensen, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Despite a relentless disease that's destroying parts of her body, a 19-year-old Utah college student has chosen a path to serve others.
Alex Wallen was one of two young women recognized at this year's St. Lucia celebration this past weekend. Every Christmas season, the Swedish Society celebrates St. Lucia, an angel like woman symbolizing light and sustenance.
Wearing the saint's crown symbolizes charity, thoughtfulness, hope — and new opportunities to serve. Those who graduate from the traditional program, work hard to reach this point. And Wallen, in particular has had more than her share of challenges.
Wallen has spent the better part of 19 years fighting to stabilize her body's chemistry. "It can actually be life threatening for her," family physician Rebecca Levine said. "Many times, she has come close to having a bad outcome."
Though she looks as normal as other students attending the College of Eastern Utah, Alex's own immune system attacks and destroys the body's glands. Her parathyroid that regulates calcium and other minerals was the first to go. By age 11 the adrenal gland was destroyed — a disorder called Addison's disease.
Addison's disease is what made President John Kennedy appear to always sport a nice tan. Actually, his pigmentation in his skin was abnormal.
"Without makeup you could see I have dark eyes right now," Wallen said. "That's because I'm recovering from an adrenal crisis I had about a month ago."
Suffering from weakness, severe muscle aches and pains, sometimes not being able to eat — which worsens the condition even more — Wallen takes medications every day to keep her metabolism under control. Without them, "I ache like there is something stabbing me all over my body," she said. "That's what it feels like. It hurts. It makes me cry."
Just the stress of college can trigger symptoms.
"When your body is under stress you make more cortisone. You make more of this chemical, a hormone that helps your body handle stress," Levine said. "(Alex's) body doesn't do that."
Despite the obstacles, Wallen sees life as an adventure — part of which is spawned by the very disease that threatens her life. "I'm just fascinated with how I'm able to handle all these things — how the medical field has been able to make me so I live," she said.
Her battle against her conditions is why Alex has chosen a medical career. She wants to become a registered nurse to help others.
Faith Wallen says her daughter has been determined from the very beginning to fight for survival.
"Anything that she has loved she has gone after and tried it and done it. She has not been afraid of it at all," Faith Wallen said. "She does it with such a sunshine attitude, you might say. I'm proud of her, really proud of her."
Alex Wallen says she just wants to make a difference. "I want to be a pediatric nurse and I want to be that one good nurse ... that makes it better."
As the St. Lucia celebration unfolded at Olympus Junior High these words were said: "In places unreached by sun, the shadows brood. Into our dark house she comes, bearing lighted candles."
In Alex's case, under the umbrella of St. Lucia, she's one who will light the darkness.
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