A Balancing Act

On the first day, she whirls into the classroom wearing big jewelry and a bright smile, her magnetic personality summoning the students’ full attention. She enthusiastically reviews the syllabus with her Latin American Culture class. “One last thing,” she says, the whimsical tone melting from her voice. “If you get sick this semester, don’t even think about showing up.”

Bonnie Frederick is no pushover. She gives the same matter-of-fact speech every first day of class, not because she is lax about attendance, but because it could mean the difference between life and death – hers.

Sick for Life

During a time when her father was severely ill, Frederick contracted an aggressive virus while taking several flights home to Arlington from Pullman, Wash., where she served as chair of Washington State University’s foreign language department. As her father’s body lost the battle against his illness, Frederick’s body began to fight against itself, becoming its own worst enemy.

The virus caused her once loyally steadfast body to view certain organs as foreign, giving the message to attack and destroy. First, it attacked her thyroid, and she gained 40 pounds in a few months. Then, the virus claimed her pancreas, leaving her with diabetes. The virus’ final and most debilitating conquest was over her adrenal glands, causing her to develop Addison’s disease.

“With Addison’s disease, my body doesn’t naturally produce cortisol, which is a hormone that helps me deal with stress properly,” she explains.

Any physical stress, including catching a cold from a student, can cause her to go into crisis mode. Without immediate treatment, she could die.

“Having a chronic medical condition has done nothing for me spiritually,” Frederick says, rolling her eyes. “I’m the most independent person you’ll ever meet, and I hate having to ask my mother, who is 83 years old, to take care of me – I’m supposed to be the one taking care of her.”

Frederick’s mother, Kitty, said it takes an awful illness before any help is requested. A couple of years ago, Frederick was on a mission to find a flu shot during a shortage of vaccinations. After a fruitless search, she caught the flu.

“I called to see how she was doing, and she sounded terrible,” Kitty recalls. “She didn’t want to ask for help but, knowing her, I immediately said I’d be right there; I didn’t even stop to pick up pajamas.”

Kitty admits that she still worries about her daughter, especially when she travels abroad. With a chuckle, she adds, “Bonnie made up her mind to live the way she wants, while still handling her problems. I’m so proud of her.”

A Balancing Act

After six years as chair of the Spanish department, Frederick will step down from her position at the end of this year.

“We all know she’s sick, but she makes you forget – none of us see her as a delicate person,” Professor Karla O’Donald says.

As tears fill her eyes, she adds, “Dr. Frederick deserves the break, but I can’t help but wonder: Who could possibly take her place?”

“Work is only part of my identity,” Frederick says. “Maintaining balance in my life is crucial, and it would be stupid of me not to give my illness its due attention.”

Balance means honoring a strict schedule of medication and taking extra care to stay healthy. Yet even with the perfunctory tasks, Frederick adds personal flare. Every morning, she wakes up at 4:30 a.m. with no alarm and begins a “prolonged putter” routine consisting of the New York Times crossword puzzle, a huge latte and a substantial breakfast. Her plastic SMTWTFS box of morning pills is in a kitchen drawer along with her blood sugar monitor. Her insulin is in a bottle on a shelf in the fridge.

Her second floor Reed Hall office overlooking a monster magnolia tree gives evidence of her personality but no indication of her illness. The clues are found in the details. She opens a drawer in her large, uncluttered desk to reveal juice boxes, raisins and candied violets from Spain for snacking when her blood sugar is low. Underneath her mouse pad is a note explaining her medical condition and steps on how to take care of her if she is incapacitated by an attack. Since her purse contains all of her medical necessities, it always sits near her feet.

“These are my magic pills,” she states, reaching into the orange bottle labeled Hydrocortisone. “This tiny little pill keeps me from dying.”

A fair chunk of Frederick’s day is taken up by caring for herself. In addition to administering medication and checking her blood sugar levels, she exercises nearly every day. Her personal trainer at the University Recreation Center, Jeff Reader, works with her twice a week.

“The trick is to make sure she doesn’t get tired,” he says. “It isn’t a workout that would challenge most people, but for Bonnie, it takes a lot of effort.”

He pauses for a moment and then adds, “She gets frustrated sometimes because she can’t do more, though. It is obvious that she doesn’t like being sick.”

Positive Perspective

Minimizing the emotional toll of her illness is a constant struggle.

“Because I have to be self-involved to stay healthy, it is so tempting to give in to self-pity and depression,” she says solemnly. To combat her deepest fear of “living a half-life in a teeny, tiny world,” Frederick teaches, travels, spends time with friends and family, gardens, writes and volunteers at the local food bank to keep her world big.

With a graceful wave of her hand and an air of determination, she declares, “I know there’s a lot of bad things in life, but I’m here to have fun.