In early May, not long after taking the last of her final exams, IUP student Laura Kline headed to Pittsburgh. The journey from her Kittanning home was not for a job or a summer internship, but rather for something Kline, thirty-one, has grown accustomed to—surgery.
Kline’s right knee, ravaged by the effects of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) that has plagued her since her teenage years, was replaced at Allegheny General Hospital. Three days later, she was home walking with a cane. And three weeks after that, she was back on the Indiana campus, taking the first of two summer classes before she underwent yet another surgery to remove a cataract in late July.
Such is life for Kline, a full-time student and mother of three, who not only must balance family and class schedules but a debilitating disease that leaves her in constant pain. But Kline approaches both school and life with the same positive attitude. “There are always opportunities,” she said. “And sometimes they’re hidden. You just have to look.”
Kline was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age fifteen. She had injured an ankle during a fall, but doctors became concerned when her pain wouldn’t go away even after physical therapy. Other joints began to ache, too.
Faculty member Jennifer Jones, right, likes Kline’s attitude.
For years, Kline said, she was in denial about her condition. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function and deformity of the joints. Unlike osteoarthritis, RA often afflicts younger people and can impact other body parts, such as the eyes, mouth, and lungs.
After accepting the need to take control of the disease, Kline has been able to manage it with medication. Much of her treatment has been through trial and error. Some drugs offer her no relief, while others do, but their potency fades over time. “I try not to think about it, but the pain is always there,” Kline said.
And when the pain proves to be too much and her joints have worn down to the point of no return, Kline turns to surgery. Before her most recent surgeries, Kline had already had her right hip replaced and both wrists fused. Her left hip will probably be next. “I feel like I go to the doctors all the time,” she said.
At the end of July, Kline had a cataract removed from her right eye. She had been virtually blind in that eye since 2007 but had to go to a specialist at Johns Hopkins University for the surgery because of the way her arthritis inflames everything, including her eyes. Doctors hope they will be able to implant a new lens in Kline’s eye in a few months. But Kline is thrilled she’s able to see, even though her vision is blurry. Before, she could only make out light and dark.
Kline and her children: Anthony, left, Lacie, and Brian
In the midst of all of this, Kline takes care of her kids: Anthony, thirteen; Brian, ten; and Lacie, seven. She attends classes, and she even volunteers.
Kline intended to start college after she graduated from Ford City High School in 1996. But the birth of her oldest son when she was a high school senior put those plans on hold. “I spent ten years just being a mom at home with the kids, and I still love being a mom, but I just needed something more," she said.
She enrolled first at IUP’s Northpointe campus in Spring 2007. She decided on Accounting as a major, because she wants to work in an office setting and enjoys working with numbers. After one semester, Kline headed to IUP’s main campus.
When her kids have a day off school and she has class, she’ll often bring them to sit in on her courses. “I think it plants a seed for their future to go to IUP or another college,” she said.
IUP faculty member Jennifer Wiggins Jones ’98, who taught Kline in a business communications class, said Kline’s positive attitude is infectious. She marvels at Kline’s ability to balance all her responsibilities while battling her disease.
A Dean’s List student and Provost Scholar, Kline has even spent time volunteering with the American Red Cross and preparing tax returns for the elderly. “You could be having a bad day, but Laura will come through the door, smiling despite being in pain, and it makes you forget what you were upset about,” Jones said.
But Kline doubted herself when she first started school. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” she said. “I crawled into the classroom. It was tough.”Her speech was slow, her movements were slow, and she felt as though she wasn’t keeping up. But with time and effort, she gained comfort and confidence. She carries her pile of books in her hands everywhere she goes to boost her strength.
“Laura can type so fast even though she’s had both of her wrists fused,” Jones said. “She probably types faster than most students.”
Kline said she’s glad she chose IUP. “They take the time to get to know the students,” she said, “and there are so many professors that will help you outside the classroom.”
When she graduates next spring, Kline looks forward to reaping the rewards of her hard work. “The payoff is going to be so much better when I’m done,” she said.