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Treasure in Jars of Clay

By Megan Jonas

Every weekend, Anne Wilcox gives herself an infusion of donated blood plasma to treat the immune disorder she's had since birth. She usually schedules the treatment for Saturday because it can cause dramatic fatigue over the next day, and the Whitworth assistant professor of education needs her energy to teach. The first thing Wilcox does as she sits at her kitchen table and begins the hourlong process is pray for the donors.

"Without the infusions, I wouldn't have the stamina to teach and I wouldn't have immune protection, so I'm always grateful for those who give blood plasma," she says. "They're giving me an opportunity to express my gifts and live a meaningful life."

At Whitworth, Wilcox's gifts are on full display. She is the director of the English Language Learner Endorsement program, and she has been recognized for her innovative work in intercultural education. She has also formed rich relationships with students, mentoring several who are dealing with their own health challenges.

"I can be empathetic to what they're going through but still provide some hope," she says. "When you have a chronic disability or illness and you speak to hope, it's more powerful because you know what the hard days are like."

Wilcox has experienced many hard days. For most of her life, she struggled with unexplained chronic infections. Constant illness prevented her from playing sports in her youth and forced her to take time off from college during both her undergraduate and graduate school years.

"My desire to pursue academics often got interrupted by the condition, without anyone really knowing what it was," Wilcox says. "The lack of a diagnosis was bewildering, and I blamed myself for not being strong enough to reach my dreams."

Finally, new research led doctors to diagnose Wilcox at age 41 with common variable immune deficiency. While a healthy immune system functions as an army against infection, Wilcox jokes that hers "acts as a 'welcome mat' for infections."

Even though she finally had answers, insurance refused to cover treatment for many years. That changed after she was hospitalized with double pneumonia in 2013, early during her career at Whitworth.

These days, with access to immune-boosting infusions called subcutaneous immunoglobulin replacement therapy, Wilcox rarely gets sick. Now in her 60s, she has surpassed the life expectancy she would have had without the treatment.

"I live on borrowed time, which makes me love each day, each family member, each opportunity to teach, and each student or colleague who crosses my path," Wilcox says. "I really do wake up with a deep awareness that every day is a gift – and that Christ walks beside me in years I should never have had."

Fatigue is still a major challenge. Ambitious and extroverted, Wilcox wishes she could say yes to every professional and social opportunity. "Many times my determination exceeds my stamina, and I am forced to rest," she says. "In my enthusiasm for life, I often forget to stop and rest."

Wilcox refers to her condition as an "unseen disability." While her immediate colleagues know about it, she typically doesn't tell others unless necessary.

"People are usually surprised to find out what I live with because I don't look like I'm sick," she says. "It's not something I like to lead with. I like to lead with who I am rather than the disease."

Last year, Wilcox began advising a student who has epilepsy, another unseen disability. Wilcox and elementary education major Savanna Clark '22 met weekly for months before Wilcox shared her own story. Wilcox knew it was time after Clark had a seizure and came to her, discouraged about her fatigue and wondering whether she could become a teacher.

"It felt like it was important to say, 'Guess what? I've got something too, and I've been able to teach all these years, so let me tell you about what I have to do to be healthy,'" Wilcox says. She reassured Clark that she was more than her disability, and that she has the resilience and determination teachers need.

Clark says she feels blessed to have Wilcox as her advisor. "I've occasionally wondered if I'll be hired," Clark says. "She just turned that around for me and really answered that question, and I'm not discouraged anymore."

Now in her ninth year at Whitworth, Wilcox hopes to keep doing what she loves – teaching the next generation of teachers – but knows this calling is not a given. What she is certain of, and what she tells students like Clark, is that God has her life, and God is there in the things she can and can't do.

"Walking side by side with Christ is such a privilege and really does make a difference," Wilcox says, "because I’m not in charge of this."

Wilcox's story appears in the fall 2019 issue of Whitworth Today magazine.

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