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She Can Do That

Radiation therapist battles obstacles to overcome dystonia, doubters

Kelsey Alford

From The Ichabod - Fall 2020

Her fingers were taped to keep them from curling inward. Her curved spine gave her an uncomfortable posture. Dystonia wanted to win. It wanted to break her down and wear her out with constant muscle contractions. But her mind and body pushed forward and defeated the frustration and exhaustion that tried to keep her from finishing the 5K Spartan race on a snow-packed course in March.

“I remember feeling so in control of the situation I wasn't in control of,” said Kelsey Alford, certificate ’16. “I remember having such a sense of accomplishment because I could only use three of my fingers on each hand and I still was able do monkey bars.”

Dystonia causes uncontrollable muscle contractions, leading to involuntary movements and discomfort throughout the body, and Spartan races require full-body muscle strength to maneuver obstacles. Alford’s race this March wasn’t her first, but it was her first since dystonia started to affect her hands. She was proud of her achievement, but races have hardly been the biggest obstacle she’s overcome. At 26 years old, she was presented with bigger obstacles when convincing doctors she wasn’t faking her symptoms as a teenager and when educators told her to look for a career that would keep her at a desk.

Growing up in Paris, Texas, Alford started seeking a diagnosis for her muscle contractions when she was 15. Doctors tested her for scoliosis and the most common genetic variants for dystonia, but when tests came back negative, they started doubting Alford’s symptoms.

“I had medical professionals telling me I was making up my symptoms and faking things,” she said.

She tried a neurologist at another hospital, but she had to clear a psychiatrist’s evaluation since her record said she faked her symptoms. After the psychiatrist determined the symptom claims were genuine, the neurologist started treating Alford for dystonia. She’s lived a functional life since then with a determination to help others feel empowered.

An experience getting x-rays as a teenager also evoked her determination. In a room full of employees, she undressed for an x-ray and felt very uncomfortable.

“I just remember being humiliated in that moment,” Alford said. “If someone would have just talked to me, if they would have helped me feel more at ease in this moment, this would have been a completely different experience for me. I thought to myself, I want to be in a field where just being kind and compassionate and understanding actually makes a big difference.”

Alford faced more obstacles as she earned an associate’s degree and an x-ray technologist certificate at a community college in Texas.

“I was told this program probably wasn't for me if I'm going to have medical issues and I should probably find something else to do with my career,” she said. “It was such a battle. I felt like my teachers took pleasure in me not succeeding.”

She did succeed, and along the way she completed a clinical rotation at an oncology center where she met both a student and a graduate of Washburn University’s radiation therapy program, an online certificate program in the School of Applied Studies that prepares graduates to administer radiation treatment to cancer patients. Students take courses remotely while doing clinicals at affiliated sites. Receiving strong recommendations for Washburn’s program, Alford decided this would be how she’ll make a difference in her career.

“Even before beginning, Kelsey communicated a desire to serve others and be part of something greater than herself,” said Becky Dodge, assistant professor, allied health. “I believe she found that as a radiation therapist.”
Alford completed the 13-month program in 2016 and is a radiation therapist at Texas Oncology in McKinney, Texas.

“Washburn was such a breath of fresh air,” Alford said. “They were so accepting, so understanding. It was so enlightening just because I hadn't experienced teachers actually wanting you to get a job, wanting you to succeed, wanting you to pass. That means everything.”

Dodge, as ’94, was the radiation therapy program director when Alford attended and is now coordinator of the master of health sciences program.

“Kelsey is intelligent, determined and, perhaps most importantly, she is empathetic when caring for cancer patients,” Dodge said. “I’m thrilled she felt accepted and encouraged in the program.”

As a dystonia warrior, Alford will keep fighting the obstacles presented by the disorder, the racecourses and any doubters.

“I've known for a long time I'm never going to be the fastest, I'm never going to be the most successful at everything, but there is no greater joy than accomplishing something lots and lots of people said you couldn't do.”


The Ichabod Winter 2021 issue

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2021 winter edition online and look for it in mailboxes in January.

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