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Blugold's story gives hope to others facing chronic illness: Erica Nerbonne

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: May 2020 graduate Erica Nerbonne, now a master's student in English and American literature at Miami University, remains open to the many career possibilities that her Spanish skills and current degree will bring. "I might pursue my Ph.D. or try and work for an NGO. I am hopeful regarding what is next for me. Thanks to my liberal arts education, I will have many opportunities that I can consider pursuing."

When Erica Nerbonne enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the fall of 2014, she promptly declared a major in microbiology, a classic pre-med course of study for a student who had wanted to be a doctor since she was in fifth grade.

Six years later, she graduated with a degree in Spanish linguistics. That shift from science to language came about when a life-threatening condition led her to make some life-changing and life-affirming decisions.

Erica, an Eau Claire native, deals with a host of autoimmune and other chronic health conditions that since late in high school have progressively and intermittently taken her vision and her mobility, and for a lengthy period of acute crisis in 2018, nearly took her life.

It was after that time in the hospital that she had a major change of heart about her studies and changed her major to Spanish, the language she had been speaking for months with a nurse named Pablo who helped her learn how to walk again.

“I realized there are so many people I still wanted to meet and so many things I wanted to learn,” Nerbonne says. “Language is a powerful tool for healing and connecting with others. I started college with the goal to be a more empathetic doctor, the doctor I never had, and I ended college with the goal of creating a more empathetic society through language.  

“The sciences saved my body, but the humanities saved my soul.”

Living with the unpredictability of autoimmune illness

While her various diagnoses (15 to be exact) do not define her, Erica feels that talking openly about them and the impact they have had on her life is an important way to raise awareness in the general population, as well as raising hopes for other students with chronic or serious illness.

“I think it is crucial to show that people can still enjoy life despite chronic illness,” she says about sharing her story.  

The short list of Erica’s chronic health conditions starts with a rare autoimmune condition known as Behcet's disease, a vascular inflammatory syndrome with wide-ranging systemic impact. Two other chronic conditions, Elders-Danlos and dysautonomia, also were primary contributors to Erica’s limited vision and mobility. She also suffers from multiple chronic conditions that cause daily seizures and episodes of fainting, as well as kidney disease. Gastroparesis, paralysis of the stomach muscles, resulted in a long-term need for feeding tubes, a catheter used for continual intravenous medications and the eventual implantation of a gastric pacemaker to keep her digestive system functioning.

During Erica’s worst period of declining health and hospitalization in 2018, when she was down to a mere 68 pounds, even these significant invasive measures were not enough. Her organ failure worsened, and she suffered a heart attack.

Despite all these debilitating and life-threatening factors, Erica sees her story as one that showcases the support of others along with her own determination and perseverance.

“My story is also about the kindness of other people,” she points out. “So many people sacrificed so much so that I could graduate — my mother, my family, my professors and support staff at UWEC. If you treat people with kindness, you help them succeed. I am very thankful for all of them. I did not do this on my own.”  

A support team that never gave up

“When I began at UWEC, I was learning how to navigate life with a disability after losing my vision and mobility as I was graduating high school,” Erica says.

She began her first semester legally blind and using a wheelchair. Prior to enrolling, she and her family had coordinated services for Erica through the Services for Students with Disabilities office, directed by Vicky Thomas.

“With Erica on our campus we needed to upgrade our services, especially with reading accommodations for her low vision, and height-adjustable desks when she used a wheelchair,” says Thomas, explaining higher education is not able to offer personal assistance staff to help students with daily activities or maneuvering with wheelchairs.

Sharon and Erica Nerbonne

Erica's vision loss and periods of time needing a wheelchair made navigating campus very difficult her first semester at UWEC, so her mother, Sharon, put her own career on hold to be her daughter's full-time aide.

This fact, along with Wisconsin’s snowy climate, brought the Nerbonne family to a decision that they felt grateful to have been in the position to make: Sharon Nerbonne, Erica’s mother, left her employment and became her daughter’s full-time aide for the duration of college.

“I made the decision to be there for Erica so that she could have a successful college experience,” Sharon says. “For six years I drove her to campus and took her to and from all of her classes; the first couple of years she was in a wheelchair, which was challenging trying to get into the buildings and on elevators with the large crowds of students.”

Erica is beyond grateful to her mom for all she did to help her reach her goals.

“She pushed me to my classes in the snow and rain for three years,” she says. “Later, when my passing out and seizures worsened, she sat outside my classrooms (classrooms she once sat in as a Blugold) in case I had a medical emergency. She is amazing.”

While recognizing the major role her mother played in her college career outside of the classroom, Erica dedicated a lot of time and effort to developing and maintaining independence within the classroom.

“I worked very hard to finish my studies independently,” she says.

“I had always been an extremely independent person, but I lost that sense of independence due to my illness. For the first few semesters of my college experience, everyone was focused on what I could no longer do. I could not see the board; I couldn’t walk to class. When so much of your existence is focused on what you cannot do, you feel limited; you doubt yourself.”

There may have been that feeling of limitation at times, but one look at Erica’s undergraduate record makes it clear that she defied those limitations.

A passion for learning and path to new goals

After switching from microbiology to a chemistry major, Nerbonne pushed herself academically in ways that expanded her natural curiosity and research skills in STEM. She became a student researcher in a computational chemistry lab run by Dr. Sudeep Bhattacharyay, but was not physically able to continue that work.

“Unfortunately, my illness worsened at that time and I was not able to return to the chemistry lab environment,” she explains. “The experience helped me affirm my passion for writing, however, as I realized that I preferred writing about the experiments to conducting them.”

It was also during her first few years of school that Erica completed an internship as a technical curriculum writer for the UW-Eau Claire Children's Nature Academy. She enrolled in the University Honors Program, became a peer counselor for the UW-Eau Claire Suicide Prevention and Awareness Research Collaborative and was encouraged to take a writing assistant position that would ultimately change the course of her education.

“A faculty member suggested that I apply to work in the Center for Writing Excellence. I began working there in 2016 and stayed until I graduated,” she says. “My colleagues at the CWE were the first people at UWEC who spoke to me in terms of what I could do, not on what I could not. As a writing assistant, I realized that I could contribute something positive despite my disability; I was not a burden. There I had value, and I could help others see their value as well.”

Andrew Suralski, lecturer in English and assistant director of the Center for Writing Excellence, points to many exceptional qualities Erica possesses, all of which built her success as a skilled and compassionate writing assistant.

“Erica embodies many of the aspirations I have for all my students, and frankly, for myself,” Suralski says. “In the four-plus years that I have known her, there was never a day that I wasn’t reminded of her curiosity, her perseverance or her pursuit of growth. Erica is the special kind of person who brings out the best in everyone around her.”

Suralski’s thoughts are echoed by the director of the center, Dr. Jonathon Rylander, who also saw right away what a gifted teacher she is.

“First, and foremost, she is a generous teacher and mentor, one who knows what it means to listen to students,” Rylander says. “What I admire most is how Erica listens, with such care and grace, to the pain of others when she is feeling pain herself. We speak of writing centers as spaces that meet students where they are — Erica truly modeled such an idea.”

Rylander also noted that beyond her scope as a writing assistant, Erica took steps to advocate for issues of difference on campus, delivering with him a 2018 CETL presentation to faculty titled “What is a  Writing Center: Increasing Accessibility Through a Holistic Approach.”

“That’s just one example of how Erica taught not only students, but also faculty, so much,” Rylander says.

Blugold team at Mayo sponsored Assistive Technology Challenge

The Blugold Tech Challenge team presenting their pitch, from left, are Erica Nerbonne, Joshua Peterson, Kyle Wertel and Blake Bomann.

In November 2018, Nerbonne took part in another effort to bring accessibility to campus, a materials science research project and technology challenge sponsored by a Mayo Clinic partnership. The team proposed a Bluetooth-based technology solution to assist low-vision students in navigating academic buildings, linking a mobile app to room number signs and sending a verbal notification.

“I admit, it can be discouraging to navigate life with a disability, but knowing that there are compassionate individuals working to make this aspect of life easier is inspiring to me,” Nerbonne said in 2018. “I hope to be able to use this system in the future, and I am grateful to be a part of developing it.”

The shift in major and a new set of goals

Erica had thought for many years that she wanted to become a physician, but over the course of her first few years at UW-Eau Claire, it became apparent through her chemistry lab experience that the medical and laboratory environment would not be safe for her with her illness. Still, it was not until a lengthy hospital stay and a medical withdrawal from the university that she came to the decision to completely change course.

“In the hospital, I was constantly being poked and prodded, treated as if I was a biochemistry problem and not a person — I was struggling,” she recalls. “One of the nursing staff, Pablo, was from Mexico, and when he found out that I knew some Spanish, he began speaking it with me. My conversations with him made me feel like a person again.

“When I was relearning how to walk, Pablo took me on daily strolls around the hospital. As I pushed my walker down the hospital corridor, we would talk in Spanish about our lives and our hopes. Speaking Spanish with him gave me a reason to keep fighting to survive.”

In a recent video submitted to campus leaders for consideration to be a commencement speaker, she reflected on this difficult period in the hospital and subsequent realization about her desires for her future.

“I had long periods of 'free time' as a patient, something I was not used to having as a student who had scheduled every minute of my day,” Erica said. “I dedicated my time to speaking Spanish with hospital staff, to reading literature and to writing. I realized that while I love science, which saved my life, it was language that I was choosing to fill my time — language was what preserved my dignity.”  

A bright future ahead

With her May 2020 Spanish linguistics degree in hand, having graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA, Erica enrolled in a graduate program in English and American literature at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Through a paid graduate assistantship, she teaches undergraduate rhetoric and composition courses and, in the spring, will begin working as a graduate writing assistant.

“It has been challenging to start graduate school during a pandemic,” she says. “Because I am immunocompromised, all my courses, including the ones I teach, are remote. Through my interactions with my colleagues and students, I have learned that we can still make meaningful connections, even if it is via Zoom.”

Making meaningful connections was a hallmark of Erica’s time as a Blugold student, one noted time and again by the many faculty and staff she came to know, including a Spanish professor with whom she has maintained a strong connection, Dr. Paul Hoff. Hoff cites many factors that demonstrate Erica’s status as a standout student, but was most impressed by what a deeply caring and compassionate human she is.

“Years back when I was beginning to know Erica and learn more about her medical challenges, I myself went through a comparatively minor health issue,” Hoff recalls. “Erica sent me a get-well card. It just really struck me that she took the time to think about my well-being when she had so much on her own plate. In that small moment I came to realize that this person was truly exceptional, and all I’ve seen subsequently confirms that.”   

Sharon Nerbonne, too, knows the depth of Erica’s abilities and capacity for compassion, both of which exceed any limits on her body.

“She doesn't let her medical conditions stand in her way of reaching her goals,” Sharon says. “I am so very proud of my daughter for all that she has accomplished on her difficult journey, I am grateful that I was present to witness it. She will be successful at whatever she does in her future, despite her health making life more challenging.”

Erica is proud of her accomplishments as a Blugold, and equally grateful for the people who helped her make some deeply personal and life-affirming steps on the more inward parts of her path.

“I realize that my journey at UWEC was about acceptance. It was hard to accept staying at a school close to home when my doctors told me I was too ill to leave for my California ‘dream school’” she says. “Initially, I struggled to accept this. I also struggled to accept my disabilities. I kept waiting for a treatment to take me back to the way I once was. I needed to accept my illness and disabilities and find a way to live a fulfilling life despite them. I feel that I did that at UWEC. For this reason, my journey is about accepting the challenges of life.

“I accepted myself enough to pursue my newfound passions. Acceptance is something to which we can all relate. It is something that we all deserve.”