For Aryah Hudgins, life with scleroderma has been a struggle.
The autoimmune disease resulted in Hudgins spending much of her childhood in the hospital and enduring a difficult treatment process. But it was the assistance and kindness of several nurses throughout her life that helped her cope with the disease.
“They helped me through a lot of hard times, and it just kind of seemed like paying it forward would be the best thing to do,” said Hudgins. “I don’t know how I would have gotten through everything I went through as a child if it hadn’t been for all the nurses in my life.”
Now, Hudgins is a participant in the nursing program at Rappahannock Community College (RCC), coming closer to realizing her dream of helping people in the same way she was helped by others.
Hudgins’ first inspiration came when she was first diagnosed with scleroderma at the age of 10. It was the first time she had ever met a nurse.
“As my doctor talked to my parents, the nurse in the room came to sit next to me and hold my hand,” Hudgins said. “I think quite often about the kindness of that nurse.”
Another nurse, whom Hudgins affectionately called “Grandma Bonnie,” would come to her home and provide treatments to Hudgins until her mom learned how to do it.
Hudgins said it took “a large number of nurses to save my ten-year-old life” as scleroderma is a disease that can turn life-threatening.
“What it does is I make too many white blood cells and so…they need something to do because there are too many of them, said Hudgins. “They will decide, ‘Hey! Her arm is broken!’ and rush there to fix it, and there’s nothing to do there because it’s really not broken, so they will just stay there and die.”
Hudgins added that the dead cells, if not treated, will make the skin harden, lessening the mobility in the affected limb.
“You could eventually lose limbs,” Hudgins said.
In order to treat the condition, Hudgins takes a chemotherapy drug called methotrexate, which destroys her immune cells; therefore, Hudgins cannot really have an immune system.
“I can’t get a tan or get hurt in any way because I just can’t heal it,” said Hudgins. “I don’t have the ability to heal it and if I did get hurt- for example, one of the first times I came out of remission, I stepped on a nail and…my body started to produce immune cells to try and heal it- it just hurts me even more.”
As a child, Hudgins couldn’t go out for recess or be in the sun, and if she did go outside, she had to wear special UV clothing “which as a kid was just really embarrassing,” Hudgins said.
“Other kids made fun of me….I mean, it’s hard to make other 10-year-olds understand,” said Hudgins, who added that theater played a tremendous role in helping her get through the difficult period alongside her treatment.
She had already been singing and acting with the Gloucester-based Court House Players and even flew to Missoula, MT to participate in the highly competitive Missoula Children’s Theatre Performing Arts Camp for five years in a row.
“Theater friends are the friends that never made fun of me,” said Hudgins. “And theater was inside [meaning no sun] and it’s fairly safe.”
Her dedication to her theater shone when she attended a rehearsal after having received treatments all day at home for her disease, including an IV.
“You just do not miss rehearsal in theatre. You have to go,” Hudgins said before adding, “I still went to rehearsal with an IV in my arm.”
Although Hudgins knew her director would have given her a break, she said: “I’m not like that. I don’t want to have special treatment in any way.”
While Hudgins ultimately chose to pursue a career in nursing, she said that her theatrical background will be essential in her work.
“Really, it’s getting up in front of an audience when you have to get up and talk to a patient, and especially their family,” said Hudgins. “You need the same kind of confidence [while also] having to control your facial expression and your emotions.”
Through the nursing program at RCC, Hudgins has been given the opportunity to care for patients and gain practical experience.
“When you’re looking at a real patient and they’re talking to you like their real nurse, you really do feel like their nurse,” said Hudgins. “And you may not know everything yet, but you’re still helping. It already feels like paying it forward.”
She acknowledged RCC’s role in making her career goal possible through numerous scholarships, including the Commonwealth Legacy Scholarship for 2011-12.
“The college has just been great for me,” said Hudgins. “I’m not sure I would have gotten into the nursing program if it wasn’t for the scholarships, and I continue to get them.”
Hudgins particularly cited the efforts of Victor Clough, the director of the college’s Educational Foundation.
“He helped me get a scholarship and I had gone to a convention to accept the scholarship and he was very nice,” said Hudgins. “Two months later he walks in to audition for a show I’m helping to direct!”
Since then, Hudgins said she and Clough have become good friends.
“Now he always keeps tabs on me at RCC, and checks on me now and then,” said Hudgins. “If I ever had a problem or needed anything, I know that he would be there.”
When asked what it meant to receive scholarships from both the college and other sources, Hudgins replied: “I don’t think they even realized how much it means when they give you a scholarship because it’s someone putting faith in your future, someone else believing in you and helping you achieve your goals.”
As for her main goal of becoming a nurse, Hudgins said it is what “pulls me through all these hard tests and stressful nights” as she prepares to graduate in May 2014, receive her associate and pursue her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Old Dominion University through RCC’s Guaranteed Admission Agreement.
“We all have a countdown clock for the day we graduate and really become a nurse,” said Hudgins. “Everyday, you’re thinking about where you want to work and who you want to help and how many people you’re going to help throughout your life.
“It’s just overwhelming to think about the number of people that I’d be able to help as a nurse,” she added. “I can’t wait for it. I’m so excited!”