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Also In This Issue:

FP Program Celebrates 25 Years

Sohail Hashmi Named 2005 Carnegie Scholar

Science Symposium Highlights MHC Student Work

2004-2005 Faculty Award Winners

Meet FP Scholar Elizabeth Hamlin

MHC Extends Its Reach into Holyoke at Open Square

Students Raise Funds to Build Library in Cameroon

MHC Newsmakers

MHC Milestones

MHC Notices

MHC Happenings

Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives
May 6, 2005

Meet Frances Perkins Scholar Elizabeth Hamlin FP ’05

 
Elizabeth Hamlin
  Elizabeth Hamlin FP ’05
(photo by Donna Cote)

Many women come to the Frances Perkins Program to fulfill long-standing academic aspirations cut short by exigencies such as motherhood, work, or tuition bills. For Elizabeth Hamlin FP ’05, the route to Mount Holyoke’s program for nontraditional-aged students was different: a serious illness in her mid-20s derailed her athletic career and forged her determination to study medical anthropology.

Hamlin graduated from high school in 1986 and attended University of the Arts in Philadelphia for a year and a half before taking some time off. A talented and committed athlete, she supported herself as a swim coach while competing in triathlons and marathons. “I wasn’t the kind of person who felt I had to go right back and finish up college. I was having a good time, living my life, and doing what felt natural.” But in the mid–1990s she began to develop a puzzling assortment of symptoms that gradually made her sports-centered life unfeasible.

She recalled the progression of the disease from the first symptoms to the final diagnosis: “Throughout the 1990s I felt I was living a dual life; I was a healthy athlete, but having to deal with a lot of health problems. Then in 2000, my whole body was affected. I couldn’t remember what day it was. It was like having a horrible hangover but without any drinking. I couldn’t even get out of bed. I remember thinking, I am going to die. I have a fatal disease that no one can diagnose.”

Hamlin’s condition was eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease. As she subsequently discovered, the disease had been around since the 1800s but had not been properly identified until the late 1990s. (Coincidentally, Hamlin also learned that it was a Mount Holyoke alumna, Polly Murray ’55, who alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that an alarmingly large number of children in Lyme, Connecticut, were being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. This triggered a major CDC study that led to the discovery of the disease.)

When Hamlin was finally diagnosed in 2000, she had no health insurance. She was fortunate and aggressive enough to find a drug company to sponsor her treatment and a doctor specializing in Lyme disease willing to work with her.

While she was recuperating, she pondered what she would do with her life. Before her illness became totally debilitating, she had been an aquatics director at a YWCA in Connecticut, but she lost her job when she could no longer get in the water. “At that point my whole future was uncertain. I wondered, who am I besides my athletics and competing? And then I realized that this disease would give me a focus. It definitely changed my perspective on things.”

Hamlin decided to go back to college, and earned an associate’s degree at Norwalk Community College. Her adviser there suggested she look into the programs at Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley. “My first reaction was, no way I’m going to an all-women’s college and living in a dorm,” she recalled. “But I’m also not the kind of person who says, this is exactly how my life has to be, so I was open to the possibility. I was accepted at Mount Holyoke, and when I walked into my first class, which was medical anthropology, suddenly everything clicked. It felt right. I felt that this was where I was supposed to go.”

Hamlin has enjoyed being involved with the FP community. “We share the same issues. The camaraderie is great. There’s a mixture of being street smart and book smart. Now I appreciate both.” Hamlin also gets along well with the traditional-aged students. “I still feel like I’m 18. I don’t look at them and say, I’m so much older.”

Hamlin is majoring in anthropology with a focus on medical anthropology. She has a minor in culture, health, and science, a Five College program involving subjects such as research methods, healers, and diseases in populations. She is grateful to her adviser, anthropology professor Lynn Morgan. “She has been very proactive and supportive,” Hamlin said. “She assures me I’m doing important work.”

Over January Term 2004, Hamlin embarked on an independent study examining Lyme disease as an example of how the health system treats and responds to a “new” disease and how such a disease impacts patients and their families. “The longer you go having the disease without treatment, the more likely it is to become chronic; chance of full recovery is smaller,” Hamlin said.

A trip last summer to a conference in York, England, on tick-borne illnesses proved to be a pivotal experience for Hamlin. After meeting several Lyme disease patients, she decided to incorporate their experiences in her research. She spent two additional weeks traveling throughout the UK, visiting Lyme disease sufferers.

“ The patients were so friendly and welcoming and invited me to come into their homes, hear their stories. I traveled all over Scotland and England interviewing people. It completely changed my life,” Hamlin said. “When I went to the UK, I saw that everything I’d been through had a purpose. I saw myself in all the patients I met at various stages of the disease. I thought, maybe I can help these people. I am still in touch by email with some of them. I get updates on their conditions. I would never have expected any of this.”

Hamlin is planning to attend graduate school at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, home to an institute that specializes in issues of disease and treatment in rural areas. As graduation comes nearer, Hamlin said she is “basking in every class, every assignment.”

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