Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Whatever You Love: Devon Geary reclaims life's sweetness at Amherst

It wasn’t that long ago, and Devon Geary has come a very long way.

She was so sick in 2006, when she was a sophomore at James Monroe High in Fredericksburg, that she had to drop out of school. She thought she might be dying. If she was, would her doctors and parents tell her?

 She suffers from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). The rare genetic disorder can be debilitating. Sitting up or standing can cause heart rates to soar and blood flow to the brain to decrease, resulting in fainting.

 Worse, Devon's case of POTS is accompanied by Ehler-Danos syndrome, which affects connective tissue between joints and can make movement agonizing.

 At 16, she was faced with the prospect of being bedridden or in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Her doctor gave her little hope.

 But she refused to give in.

 In 2008, she came to Germanna Community College in a wheelchair and earned her GED.

 She began classes at GCC, using a walker and frequently losing consciousness.

 There was no way I could have gone to a four-year school," Devon said. "I could barely walk. I could barely stay conscious."

 "I would sometimes find Devon in the fetal position," Win Stevens, GCC's Coordinator of Disability Services said. She was able to stick with it, she said, because at Germanna: "Nobody stared at me. Nobody laughed at me. I had been in a wheelchair for 2½ years. I was used to pity stares. But I didn't get that at Germanna. People were very kind and accommodating, but they didn't pity me."

 Devon thrived on the kind of one on one attention students receive from faculty at Germanna.

 Her condition gradually improved, and though there was still pain, by 2010, she not only walked on her own, but became an assistant dance instructor. As a teenager, she had dreamed of a career as a professional dancer.

 She did so well at Germanna she was awarded nearly a full scholarship to Amherst, one of the top liberal arts schools in the country.

 At Germanna, instead of being pigeonholed, she decided who she was going to be.

 "If anything, I was the 6-foot-tall redhead with the 4.0," Devon said."I was never defined by my illness there and I really appreciate that. I don't know if it would have been that way at a four-year school," she said. "I think I did pretty well, but it was because of the environment."

 Now she's 22. She has graduated from Amherst, been chosen as a Amherst-Folger Undergraduate Fellow and will work there as a teaching assistant through the end of the academic year as she prepares to begin graduate school.

 As part of her fellowship, she will learn about archiving at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill in Washington. It’s the world’s biggest repository of the printed works of William Shakespeare.

 And she said she's "looked at frontispieces, engravings, and other illustrations in maps, atlases, and books, most of which were about the New World, to see how Europeans depicted the Other in the Early Modern Period––particularly how the English depicted and represented American Indians in images in that time period. It really was amazing."

 Her recovery has been so dramatic that she said she made the University of Massachusetts Competitive Ballroom Dance Team last fall, although she didn’t compete because she was working on a paper she hopes to see published. “If you’re going to compete, you have to rehearse a minimum of eight to 10 hours a week, if not more,” she said. “In ballroom dancing, it’s two moving as one and everything counts.” She hopes to compete soon, but said she had work to do first.

 She wrote an analysis of the novel “Whatever You Love” by Louise Doughty that includes work with literary and psychoanalytic trauma theory.

 Her last week as an undergrad, she submitted 100 pages of her own critical writing, 83 of which belonged to her paper on “Whatever You Love,” which she calls a “thesis-ish” and which she continues to refine in hopes of getting it published.

 She saw herself in it, she says, because POTS took away the things she loved when she was younger, before she fought her way out of a deep hole of pain and despair to reclaim her life.

 “When I first read 'Whatever You Love,' I could really identify with the protagonist,” she said. “I read it cover to cover. When I finished, I said ‘Whoa!’ because I really saw myself and my own experiences in that story, and I didn’t feel so alone anymore.

 “A few months before that, I had read through all the journals I wrote when I was processing what it was to be sick. I saw in the narrative of the book the same ideas I saw in my journals. Back then, I couldn’t figure out how to move forward, even though I knew I had to if I had any hope of feeling like a person again.

 “Honestly, I don’t know how I did it.”

 But it’s pretty simple, really.

 She started by dragging herself to class at Germanna.

 Then she made her own wish come true.

 “I’m so happy,” Devon said. “I’ve really found what I want to be doing, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s exhilarating and invigorating and all around wonderful.”




William Carter said...

Thanks Mike. Devon's story is inspirational and is an example of what the human spirit is able to overcome and accomplish. It (the story) also highlights the importance of a supportive and positive environment in overcoming adversity. As a school counselor at James Monroe High, I remember her at James Monroe High and saw some of the debilitating aspects of her life. It was a joy to see her enroll at GCC. Devon serves as a model of determination and commitment.

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