Kristina McWhorter Zebra is a positive, bright light. This ambitious grad student refuses to allow Ehler-Danlos Syndrome or Postoral Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome to dissuade her from achieving her dream of becoming an elementary special education teacher. Kristina, through determination and lots of hard, physical work, is now an avid participant in marathons. She is unstoppable.
AXIS: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your conditions?
Kristina: My name’s Kristina, I am 23 and am currently in graduate school for my Masters of Education in Special Education. I am also going to school for dual Elementary Education and Special Education teaching credentials. I own my own photography business where I specialize in natural light portraiture. I graduated high school at 15 while I was on home hospital (a program for students too sick to attend school where a teacher goes to the student’s home once a week).
At 14, I had contracted a staph infection that lasted for 13 months, through 43 rounds of antibiotics. The staph infection set off two syndromes that had been lying dormant but were “woken up” by the infection. One was genetic, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and the other was Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome.
What is one piece of advice you would give to some who wants to learn more about invisible illnesses?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. One of the things I’ve found in the chronically ill community is that we are experts on our illnesses. Going into a doctor’s office, we often know even more about our specific illnesses than the doctors do. At the end of the day, the doctors don’t live with these conditions, we do. So we have become our own advocates, researching our illnesses, reaching out to people with similar conditions to compare symptoms and doing everything we can to fight for the best daily outcomes possible.
Simply asking questions shows that you care and is a huge source of support for those of us that are often told we simply don’t look sick. We may not wear our disabilities so others can see them but that doesn’t mean that they don’t impact every part of our life.
What are some of the ways exercise has helped you cope with your conditions?
Exercise has been a game changer for me. I was a dancer from the time I was three, dancing nationally and internationally through college. Being so sick made it difficult. At 17, my symptoms were the worst they had ever been. I was in excruciating pain, struggling to get out of bed for more than 4 hours a day, had to hold onto the walls as I stumbled down hallways. I was all around miserable. October of that year, I was at the physical therapist’s office as they had me start testing out different canes. The doctor pulled me aside and said, “I’m sorry to say we don’t think you’re ever going to be able to walk around the block unassisted. We need to start looking at canes as a potential option to help you.”
Telling me I couldn't do something lit a fire inside me that I didn’t know existed. That week, I contacted a local boot camp instructor who agreed to work with me. I began learning how to regain my balance and my strength. Being so weak, every move had to be drastically modified. The Ehlers-Danlos made it difficult to keep my joints in place. That winter, I had subluxations in almost every joint in my body. I kept getting stronger though. In March, I participated in a 3k. Out of the 30,000 participants, I was one of the last 3 people to complete it. Totally unassisted with tears streaking my cheeks, I crossed the finish line.
I’ve now lost over 50 pounds and love going to the gym. I still have my ups and downs but now the bad days are now few and far between, fueling me to work that much harder the rest of the time.
Since you are studying to become a teacher what is the one thing you are looking forward to most?
Being with the kids everyday. One of the wonderful things about working with children is that I look forward to showing up at work each morning. There is nothing that motivates me or gives me more joy than the silly giggles and hugs they give and seeing them exude love and excitement for the world around them. I find myself learning from them all the time and I am excited to be with them on a daily basis once more after I complete my Masters program.
What are the last 3 books you read that resonated with you and why?
The first books that come to mind are a couple that have become favorites of mine, both by Wayne Dyer. One is “The Power of Intention,” and the other is, “Wishes Fulfilled.” I am a big supporter of the idea that we bring to us what we focus on. If I am focusing on all the negative things around me or how sick I feel, I will continue feeling sick and I will have a continuous stream of negativity coming into my life. If I focus on how great I can feel and radiating joy, that’s what I will bring into my life.
On a similar note, one book that is always by my bedside is “Creative Visualizations,” by Shakti Gawain. It’s a book I have used as a reference throughout my life. It has some wonderful ideas I have used when I feel as though I need to redirect my life path in order to achieve my dreams but I am unsure of what the next steps to take are.
Can you explain what inspires you to participate in marathons?
That first 3k I completed left me feeling like I could conquer anything. I began tackling more 3ks and then moved to 5ks. In January of 2014, I completed my first 10k, participating in the Tinkerbell 10k in Disneyland. The last 100 yards of the race, I felt completely drained. I rounded the corner to where all the spectators were standing. A man in the stands saw me dragging. He looked at my race bib, which had my name on it, and called out, “You can do it Krissy! You’re almost there! Run!” The people around him chimed in and I was surrounded by dozens of strangers who were clapping, yelling and cheering me on as I sprinted to the finish.
Getting back to your question, of my inspiration for participating? Races are an amazing instant community of people who all want to celebrate being alive through movement. I’m now in training for my first half-marathon. I may have to train slower than the average person but I know I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.