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Alumna Shares Journey with Cushing’s Disease with Nursing Students


Last spring, Shelby Christensen, a St. John Fisher College alumna who was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease in 2010, reached out to Dr. Tammy Roman, Assistant Professor in the Wegmans School of Nursing, to see if she could share her journey with this rare disease with her students. Christensen produced a video that is still used in Roman’s classes today.

Cushing’s disease is a condition in which the pituitary gland releases too much adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). It is often caused by a tumor growth of the pituitary gland, which is located at the base of the brain.

In the video, which Roman used in her Adult and Older Adult Health Nursing class, Christensen talks about her experiences with being diagnosed, treated, and the struggles of recovery. Through the video, she shared not only her experience living with the disease, but she shared with the students how the nurses she had impacted her recovery and her experiences with them.

Christensen’s journey started in college when she began experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, and other symptoms.  Before she knew the cause of these symptoms she remembered feeling confused about what might be happening to her.  When she came back from school, her family noticed the changes and contacted a family friend who happened to be a nurse.  She confirmed that Christensen’s symptoms were in line with those that come with Cushing’s.

However, she went back to the doctors and was told that she was not going to be tested for Cushing’s, but another disease having to do with the ovarian system.  When tests came back negative, her father pressed the doctors to move forward with testing her for Cushing’s.  And, after multiple tests, the doctor confirmed that it was in fact Cushing’s disease.

“It was a little bit of validation that it’s okay to listen to your gut and other people.  It’s okay to be proactive and nobody knows what you’re feeling better than you and the closest people around you,” she said.

From that day on Shelby endured surgery, heavy medication, and physical therapy.  She described the process as being difficult saying, “Every stage was awful in their own very different ways.”

Today, Christensen mentors those who have had or are going through Cushing’s.  She takes pride in being honest and letting them know what to expect, all the while telling them that “it’s not all bad.”

Roman said that teaching the students using this video and story was beneficial to them.

“This first-hand account of a fairly rare disease process in a young woman her age absolutely assisted the students in remembering specific details of how Cushing’s is diagnosed, treated, and the priority nursing interventions needed to help her recover,” she said.

Andrea Masiello, a student in the course, also praised Christensen for sharing her story.

“The video that we had previously watched in our medical-surgical class was very helpful. Learning from the experience of another student was beneficial. And her story will stay with me and keep me alert to the clinical manifestations of Cushing’s. It must have not been easy to discuss peers her experience, and we appreciate it,” she said.

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