Student Life

Student of the Month


March Student of the Month - Elizabeth Keown


Elizabeth Keown Elizabeth J. Keown’s life story reads like a Hollywood movie script. When she was 5 years old, she and her 7-year-old sister Rose were given up for adoption.

During her senior year at Caldwell High School, Elizabeth was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that affects several organs of the body.

In 1986, she got married and, against the advice of her doctor, became pregnant. Though he was a month premature, her son Daniel is now a healthy 14-year-old eighth-grader.

In 1988, at age 22, Keown underwent her first total hip replacement on her left side, a complication that resulted when the steroids she was taking to fight the lupus deteriorated her bones.

In 1989, she divorced.

In 1997, she had her left hip replaced—again.

Now, at age 35, Keown is about to complete another chapter in her life.

In May, after a few struggles to finish her education, she will graduate from Cowley County Community College with an associate’s degree. Recently, Keown was named March Student of the Month at Cowley. "I used to think a student had to be real involved on campus and have a 4.0 grade-point average" to be considered for Student of the Month, she said. "I wanted to let students know that you don’t have to have a 4.0 to be recognized for your involvement and your dedication. People tell me I’m an inspiration to others. I feel good about it." Keown, who has lived in Caldwell since 1979, has a 3.1 GPA majoring in pre-law. This academic year, she has served as secretary for Phi Beta Lambda business club and Student Government Association representative for the organization, SGA representative and part-time secretary for the Returning Student Organization, is a member of the Math and Science Club, Volunteers Learning Through Service, Peers Advocating Wellness for Students, and sits on the Student Affairs Committee. She also has volunteered for the American Red Cross, Arkansas City chapter, for two years.

Keown, who married husband Bob in November 1999, has plans to transfer to Wichita State University, where she plans to study to become a paralegal, one who conducts research and writes reports for attorneys. Keown’s story is nothing short of amazing. She was born in Kansas City, Kan., and grew up in Blackwell, Okla. Cleda Newland and her husband, the late Burle Newland, adopted Keown and her sister. Keown’s biological mother, Nancy Runnels, lives in Horton, Kan., as does sister Rose. Sister Debra lives in Blue Springs, Mo., and John, the oldest of the four children, lives in New Mexico.

Keown is a Native American, part Kickapoo, Pottawatomie and part Aztec, which, she says, comes from her father. Just before graduating from Caldwell High School in 1983, Keown was diagnosed with lupus, and the outlook was bleak. "It was already pretty advanced," Keown said. "I had kidney disease. Doctors thought I probably had lupus a year or two before it was diagnosed."

In 1986, she marred Dennis Turek and within about a year, Daniel was born. "I was lucky to have him because of my illness," Keown said. "I was a high-risk patient. Doctors told me not to get pregnant, but deep in my heart, that’s what I wanted. He weighed 5 pounds, 7 ounces when he was born. Now, he’s taller than me and has those football shoulders."

After undergoing hip replacement surgery in 1988, Keown enrolled at Cowley for the first time. She ranked 22nd out of 23 students in her graduating class at Caldwell, so she started with the basics. "Out of high school, I had heard good things about Cowley, and it was close to home," she said. Still taking chemotherapy treatments when she started at Cowley, Keown managed to get through the first semester. But in spring 1989, she had to withdraw.

"I was constantly having flare-ups," she said. "Doctors had told me that stress causes lupus patients to have flare-ups." Keown said her divorce in 1989 alleviated some of the stress. "I don’t dwell on my disease," she said. "One of the biggest things that has helped me deal with this is the Lupus foundation of America in Kansas."

Keown served that organization as vice president in 1994 and 1995. She was training to help patients and their families cope with the disease. Today, Keown still takes medicine daily, but her disease is in remission.

"It got to the point where the steroids were not helping me," she said. "So at that time, the best treatment was chemotherapy. I was on chemo for three years, and this past June (2000) was the first time I’ve been able to not take a treatment. The chemotherapy has been really successful for me."

Throughout her ordeal, Keown has gained some notoriety. She became the first and youngest patient to have both legs equipped with batteries to stimulate blood flow to her bones. She’s also been the subject of medical journal stories for her two hip replacements. After battery stimulators were implanted in 1984, she had to learn how to walk again. Sometimes, she offers a lighter side to her disease.

"Because your weight fluctuates so often, I keep four different sizes of clothes," she chuckled. Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect various parts of the body, especially the skin, joints, blood, and kidneys. The body’s immune system normally makes proteins called antibodies to protect the body against viruses, bacteria, and other foreign materials. These foreign materials are called antigens. In an autoimmune disorder such as lupus, the immune system loses its ability to tell the difference between foreign substances (antigens) and its own cells and tissues. The immune system then makes antibodies directed against "self." These antibodies, called "auto-antibodies," react with the "self" antigens to form immune complexes. The immune complexes build up in the tissues and can cause inflammation, injury to tissues, and pain.

For most people, lupus is a mild disease affecting only a few organs. For others, it may cause serious and even life-threatening problems. More than 16,000 Americans develop lupus each year. It is estimated that 500,000 to 1.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with lupus. Today, Keown feels good physically and mentally. When she’s not studying or volunteering, she spends time with her family.

"My son is most important in my life," she said. "I feel he’s the one who has kept me going and to not give up." And Keown praised Cowley for its influence on her life. "I have grown so much and I have learned to believe in myself," Keown said. "Cowley has supported me, and I feel I have given back. Not many people know that I was the anonymous donor of $1,000 to get RSO back on its feet. An older person once told me that money is not what makes you happy, but it’s the friends you accumulate over the years. I always think of that."

Her support and friendship of husband Bob, when he was a neighbor in Caldwell, led to their marriage. Bob’s first wife died in 1998 of lupus. Her kidneys had failed, and Bob donated one of his. But the stage of lupus in her body was so far advanced that it affected her heart. "When she passed away, it hit me hard, too," Elizabeth said. "I was there to support him and comfort him through the whole grieving process. He felt he wanted to give up his life, and I told him that because I have so much faith in God, you would not be able to be with her if you take your own life."

Elizabeth enjoys each day. "I am happy with my life right now," she said.