By Jimmy Bellamy
Kathryn Marxen’s life has come full circle. Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota is where it all began for the 25-year-old occupational therapy intern.
Born premature at 25 weeks at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, fragile 1-pound, 6-ounce infant Kathryn immediately was brought next door to Children’s where she spent her first 10 weeks on a ventilator, refusing to give in to the obstacles an early entrance into the world can create.
Underdeveloped lungs and vision problems, including a detached retina, were just some of doctors’ and Kathryn’s family’s concerns. Later she would be diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) – abnormal blood vessel development in the eye. Eating became difficult, too, for tiny Kathryn, who could wear her father’s wedding ring as a bracelet, so a gastronomy tube was required for feeding.
While staying in the neonatal intensive care unit, her organs began to fail. Kathryn said when things looked grim, her mom and dad stayed at her side and her dad would read to her, and it seemed to help.
“Dr. Ronald Hoekstra came by and said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,’ ” Kathryn said she was told. “It was that connection of a parent’s voice.”
Doctors performed a patent ductus arteriosus ligation to close the ductus arteriosus in Kathryn’s heart, cryosurgery on her eyes to stop the progression of ROP, gave her lung-surfactant medication, and a scleral buckle to reattach the retina in her right eye in – a surgery that was fairly new in 1989.
At 6 months, after a couple in-and-out stays, Kathryn was ready to go home for good. She continued to go to Children’s for follow-up visits until she and family moved to Beavercreek, Ore., when she was 8 years old.
Sight and double vision has been a hurdle through the years – her left eye is 20/70 while there isn’t much visibility in her right – but it hasn’t plagued her existence; she refuses to allow it to stop her. Kathryn enjoys the outdoors, including hiking and rock climbing. She has competitively ridden horses since age 9 and took her horse to the U.S. nationals for Arabians and dressage.
In college, Kathryn received a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University in equine science and master’s of science in occupational therapy from University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. She began her internship at Children’s rehabilitation clinics in September.
She also speaks to groups of high school students with disabilities and other organizations, sharing her unique story, challenges and positive, optimistic view.
“At first, I was pretty embarrassed of my story and not as comfortable sharing it,” Kathryn said. “As I grew up and got more comfortable and familiar with it, I started to realize the power of those experiences as a premature infant, even though I don’t remember them. I can connect with people through my story and provide hope.”
When she was a kid, Kathryn didn’t want to be different and refused to use magnifiers to help her sight. It wasn’t until a low-vision high school teacher told her she could be even more successful with the right tools. Kathryn realized she could do just as well as others, if not better, and that built confidence.
Her difficult start to life, she said, helped her become brave; it’s what she credits with landing her a teaching-assistant position under famed animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin at Colorado State and her internship at Children’s.
“It’s one of those things where if you don’t ask, you don’t know,” Kathryn said. “If there’s something I want to go do, I just ask the questions that I need to ask.”
Some of Kathryn’s highlights as an intern include observing occupational therapists at the NICU follow-up clinic, where she got a chance to speak with Dr. Hoekstra and Lois Gilmore, who cared for Kathryn as a preemie, and walking into the waiting room on her first day to see brochures for and work done with the animal-assisted therapy program.
She has a strong interest in working as an OT in the NICU.
“It would be awesome to be at Children’s to bring things even more full circle if I held a position in the NICU, but I could see myself doing that anywhere,” Kathryn said. “That’s my long-term goal; it takes quite a bit of continuing education because it’s an advanced area of practice.”
Kathryn said having the perspective of a patient can be used to help others in a similar position.
“I realize how my story and experiences can provide that hope for the families going through that,” she said. “I can tell them, ‘You guys will overcome this.’ ”
Jimmy Bellamy is the social media specialist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.