Family and Personal Illness Influence Student’s Career Path

Katelyn Warnke poses in the new Arnold Health Professions Pavilion at Lebanon Valley College

At just seven years old, Katelyn Warnke ’20 became a primary caregiver for her ill father and three younger siblings while her mother worked 12-hour shifts as a nurse. Her father battled cancer and diabetes and was a double amputee. One of her siblings was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and is on the autism spectrum.

Then, at the age of 13, Warnke fell ill herself and was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, which causes the body’s nerves to be at highly sensitive. Warnke developed the condition in her left leg and both arms and needed a wheelchair for several months. Eventually, the family connected with a doctor and physical therapist at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. 

“My therapist had to cause pain to get rid of the pain and retrain my nerves to help me walk again,” Warnke said. “This really got me interested in physical therapy and the wide range of medical issues to explore, discover, and learn.”

As Warnke learned to manage her condition, she went on to play field hockey, basketball, lacrosse, and track and field in high school, working closely with her high school’s athletic trainer. “Before practice, she would show me different medical techniques and support wrapping of joints in the body,” she said.

When it came time for college, Warnke’s life experiences played a significant role in choosing to major in exercise science.

“My own medical issues and being in a wheelchair, along with my family’s medical issues, made me realize this was a route I was destined to travel,” she said.

As Warnke moved through her general education curriculum, she thrived in a trio of classes related to wellness and well-being. The courses, called Connective Courses, are interconnected as they each explore the same topic but through the lenses of humanities, social sciences, and the sciences disciplines.

“Each class focused on different aspect of mental illness,” she said. “We looked at musicians, artists, and poets and how their mental illness influenced their creativity. We learned that different parts of the brain react to emotions and how mental illness affects those emotions, and we learned how people with mental illness and other ailments are categorized and viewed in society.”

For the Traditions of Wellness: Integration course, students were assigned a research project about mental illness. Right away, Warnke drew from her childhood.

“I used the knowledge of my father’s long road to recovery to begin the idea of how an individual’s mental capacity can tolerate a multitude of rehabilitation experiences,” she said. 

While her research project just touched the tip of how to improve a patient’s rehabilitation environment and outlook, it’s an area she hopes to continue to explore in her future classes.

When Warnke completes her exercise science degree, she is planning to pursue either a physical therapy or physician’s assistant graduate program and continue learning how to help others suffering from medical illnesses.