On days when 17-year-old Paige Siehr desperately needed reassurance, she sat alone in her room and shared her doubts with God.
“I am not going to lie about it,” she said, after learning that she was suffering from Autoimmune Hepatitis, the result of taking prescription Accutane for acne coupled with a genetic predisposition for the disease. “I was not really sure why this was happening to me. But, I just kept going to church and praying all the time since this happened. I have gone through a lot of stuff, but I try to take each day as it happens, and even when others can’t understand how I am feeling, I know I can always talk to God.”
Life has not been easy for Siehr whose father died seven years ago after he suffered a blood clot following an injury at Quad Graphics.
“It’s been so hard on all of us,” she said. “My mom (Margaret) and my brother Aaron have had a difficult time without him.”
When Siehr began the Accutane treatments a year ago, her doctor required monthly blood tests to ensure her liver enzymes remained in the normal range. One of the rare side affects of this medication is liver damage. Despite careful monitoring of her blood counts, after she stopped her treatments, her liver enzymes increased significantly. While she wasn’t immediately aware of any symptoms, she now remembers feeling very tired and having some pain in her side. She wasn’t sure why.
“The illness happened so gradually that I didn’t realize how sick I was. I was scared when they told me that I needed a liver biopsy because sometimes the liver becomes so scarred and you need a new liver. A lot of people become jaundiced from this, but thankfully, I didn’t,” she explained. “Fortunately, there was only some scarring and I was told that the liver can heal up to 25 percent of itself. It is still swollen but I should be OK.”
Siehr follows a daily regimen of Prednisone treatments to reduce the swelling and takes other medication to help with liver function and healing. She will need to be supervised for the rest of her life, as the disease often has no side effects and can be fatal if not treated.
“If the doctor says it is OK, I might be able to go off the meds in a few years,” she said. “It is similar to Type 2 Diabetes in that the disease can go away if you take care of yourself.”
Not one to wallow in self-pity, Siehr, a Girl Scout Gold Award recipient, remained a positive, cheerful student at Catholic Memorial High School where she recently completed her senior year. Despite her illness, she graduated with a 4.1 GPA and plans to attend UW-Madison to study nursing. She hopes to become a nurse practitioner.
Watching her friend maneuver through school, extra-curricular activities and the illness, classmate Katie Kostroski nominated Siehr for the Molly Burke Courage Award.
“Paige is the kindest, most generous, and caring person I know and have ever met,” she said in her nomination letter. “As our National Honor Society president, Paige remains diligent and compassionate no matter how difficult her path to recover from serious illness gets.”
The annual award is presented to a Catholic Memorial High School senior who survives a battle with cancer or other serious illness while demonstrating remarkable success in four areas: academic achievement, community service, extracurricular activities and faith.
The award is named after Molly Burke, the daughter of John Burke, Catholic Memorial English department chairperson, International Baccalaureate coordinator and varsity girls soccer coach, who was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Feb. 17, 2009. She began chemotherapy the next day and recently completed all of her treatments.
“Her last treatment was April 28 and Molly, now 4, was able to ring the bell at Children’s Hospital to signify the end of her chemo treatments,” said John. “So, we are encouraged by her progress and pray for continued health now that the chemo is no longer a part of Molly’s life.”
According to John, the award was created after Nikki Condit, one of his students and a member of his soccer team, created purple bracelets with the phrase, “Be of great heart and fear less” on the top and “pray for Molly” on the inside. She sold the bracelets in school and through Stefan’s Soccer Supply.
“When she came to me with the proceeds, my wife and I decided to donate it to Catholic Memorial in order to set up a scholarship fund for CMH students who show courage similar to what we see in Molly’s fight every day,” he explained. “Then, Holy Apostles, where my daughters go to school, got involved and they do a fundraiser each spring to contribute to the Molly Burke Courage Award Fund.”
On May 17, Siehr received the $250 scholarship, and her name will be inscribed on a plaque that hangs in the CMH library.
“Paige exemplifies the values of this award because she has shown courage in the face of a serious illness and, like the first recipient of the award, Maggie Golden, Paige demonstrates a remarkable level of kindness and compassion toward others, despite her own personal suffering,” said John. “I am most impressed with Paige’s ability to accomplish at such a high level, even while she endures such physical challenges.”
When Siehr isn’t studying, leading National Honor Society meetings, or working at Prairieville Park Mini Golf Course in Waukesha, she and her friend Katie Umhoefer raise money to purchase fleece for blankets to donate to Children’s Hospital.
“We started this group called ‘Children for Children’ and make fleece tied blankets for kids at Children’s who are being treated for cancer,” she said. “We both want careers in the medical field and always wanted to do something for the hospital, so we decided to do this. We sold T-shirts and candy at church and put all the money toward buying fleece. Just before Christmas we brought 20 of them, and we recently bought more fleece to make about 25 more blankets.”
There are moments when Siehr gets down about the illness, numerous doctor appointments, and not having her father around, but she said she finds comfort in her faith, her mother, family and her school.
“My mom and I talk about everything,” she said. “Since Dad died, she is my best friend, and just like her, the people at school are amazing; it would have been hard to get through all of this without them, they really care about every person.”