Standing in a hall of Sparta High School, Steven Sevarns wore a smile that might suggest he wasn’t headed to class that day. He had finished his last lessons before graduation, and all but the ceremony was behind him.
A year ago, however, there were times when Steven was unable to stand in — much less walk — these halls at all.
“Around February last year is when things started to go downhill,” Steven said, describing early symptoms of an as-of-yet unknown illness. “It was almost like you ate too much but you were still hungry. My stomach felt like it was in a vise and being twisted constantly.”
Cramps and weight loss began in winter, but it wasn’t until April that Steven learned the culprit.
He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory illness that affects the lining of the digestive tract. There is no known cure, only treatments that require sacrifice, and which can strike a serious blow to a person’s immediate goals — especially a student on track to graduate.
Today, he has in fact graduated, after taking part in commencement ceremonies June 1. The pomp and circumstance culminated an arduous struggle to earn the diploma, beginning with that strange vise-like pain a year ago.
A Long Summer
In early May, Steven’s first hospital stay was five nights. His second stay, in late May, lasted six. Then followed over 40 hospital visits in a matter of months. While he lay in a hospital bed, his classes, including information systems courses at Kent Career Tech Center, continued without him. “This was affecting not only my home life, but my school work as well,” he said.
Then came a long summer, which Steven said felt wasted. He lay in bed for months as he began treatment for the disease, including a regimen of medications, injections and a feeding tube. His main preoccupations were YouTube and the video racing game Dirt 3, while he spun in circles mentally, waiting for recovery. Even while confined to home, he found time to tinker with computers around the house.
‘When you overcome a huge challenge, it’s one of the best feelings you will ever have.’ — Steven Sevarns
The summer proved a blessing in disguise for the soon-to-be senior. By August he was on his feet again, hitting the gym and regaining energy. If he had wound up bedridden a few months earlier or later, his absences could have really racked up. He missed just 13 days in the 2016 spring semester.
“I would’ve been completely screwed if it happened at the wrong time,” Steven said. “If it had happened a month earlier that would’ve thrown off my entire college course, because I would have had to work from a hospital bed.”
Steven’s mother, Rebecca Matteson, said she knew nothing about Crohn’s disease from the onset. His recovery was doubly challenging because Steven is on the autism spectrum, she said, and issues like anxiety can further complicate the disease.
“It was really scary for me,” she said. “It was really hard emotionally because it was very painful for him at first.”
Matteson, who specializes in home child care, cut down her number of clients over the summer to focus on her son’s health. Keeping track of his daily and nightly medications was hard enough for her, she said; she couldn’t imagine the challenge it presented for her son.
It was difficult to encourage him to get out of bed, she said, as people with Crohn’s disease can sleep up to 22 hours a day. Ultimately, she said, it was up to him to get moving again.
“He really pushed himself,” Matteson said. “I don’t know how he didn’t let it bring him down. He kept his faith and he kept his positive outlook. That accounts for a lot.”
Online Learning a Plus
Steven was dual-enrolled in a computer science class through Grand Rapids Community College in fall 2015 semester, which fortunately wrapped up before symptoms began. His instructors at the Tech Center allowed him to finish his work at his own pace, enabling him to complete it before the school year’s end.
Enrolled in the high school’s Career Academy since his sophomore year, Steven also got ahead with the help of the program’s online coursework, which he could complete at home and suited his learning style.
“Some classes I’m really good at,” he said. “Some classes I need to re-watch lectures, look at notes. That’s where I got the biggest boost; I could do my own thing at my own pace and look back as much as needed to refresh my memory.”
Steven feels he learns best through a hands-on approach..He thrives by taking machines apart and putting them back together. He built his own computer from scratch at the Tech Center, and through the Career Academy worked at a local business, disassembling and reassembling printers.
Ted Smith, who teaches at the Career Academy, said Steven excelled in the nontraditional setting, earning workplace opportunities when he got ahead on assignments, while having time available to catch up when he missed school.
“It’s been really nice to see him up there develop a lot of different skills, social and academic,” Smith said. “He’s been able to stay up on his work, get a little extra time and accelerate too.”
Strengthened by Challenges
Steven has had a relatively normal senior year. He now manages Crohn’s disease with an IV for fluids at night and a 400-calorie limit during the day, forgoing fresh fruits and vegetable for things that are easier to digest.
Despite the unexpected new regimen, Steven is excited about his future. He’s headed to Davenport University in the fall to study information systems.
“It feels great to have overcome all of those obstacles that were put before me, but I’m bittersweet about graduating,” he said. “I’m moving on to the next stage of my life, but I’ve known all these guys for 12 years, at least. I’m going to miss them.
“Sparta is family. We’re there for each other.”
The recent challenges have helped him come out a stronger person on the other side, he added.
“When you overcome a huge challenge, it’s one of the best feelings you will ever have and it will just stick with you forever.”