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HELPING HAND: Union Junior Kya Wetzel Determined to Be There for Those Who Are Also Battling Ulcerative Colitis and Raising Awareness About the Invisible Disease

SLIGO, Pa. (EYT/D9) — A little more than a year ago, Kya Wetzel lay in a hospital bed in crippling pain, wondering if she would ever get better.

Would there ever be relief?

The uncertainty was the worst part as doctors searched for an answer.

Those were dark days for the Union High School junior. Before, she was active and happy — a smile always creasing her face.

She was passionate about being a three-sport athlete and looked forward to showing what she could do on the varsity field and court.

Until ulcerative colitis took that all away from her.

But there is a happy ending to this story.

(Pictured above, Kya Wetzel during a fundraiser in Pittsburgh/submitted photo)

It’s one Wetzel is determined to share with others who may be in the same place she was 13 months ago: wondering if her symptoms would ever get better; wondering if there would ever be relief; wondering if she could have any kind of normal life.

“I just think about it all the time, where I was a year ago,” Wetzel said. “When we were doing open gyms, I would just remember the fact that a year ago, I was literally sitting in the hospital, extremely sick. It seems like it was just yesterday — sometimes it’s hard to believe it was that long ago. I think about the comeback I have made.”

The comeback has been remarkable.

Wetzel’s ulcerative colitis was so severe, she underwent a radical surgery to remove her entire colon. Through that and medication, she has been able to manage her symptoms very well over the last 11 months.

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Redbank Valley, Keystone, and Union/A-C Valley sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Heeter Lumber.

She wears an ostomy bag, but over time she has become comfortable with it, even during softball, basketball and volleyball games.

“I wear tight clothing around it, underneath my basketball shorts, just to make sure it doesn’t move too much,” Wetzel said. “Sometimes when I’m getting boxed out, I get a little worried, but other than that, you can bump into it. You can press on it. You’re not gonna be able to do too much to it. During softball, I was diving head first into the base.”

It’s become second nature.

So much so that Wetzel is content to go right along wearing it as long as she participates in sports.

Eventually, she will undergo a pair of surgeries that will eliminate her need for the ostomy bag. But Wetzel doesn’t want to miss out on any of her three sports seasons to do it.

Instead, she’ll wait.

“The process to get it removed is I’ll go in for surgery and then I’ll have to take two months off from everything,” Wetzel said. “And then I’ll go back for another surgery and I’ll have to take another two months off. So it’s like four months of nothing, and with me being a multi-sport athlete, that’s really hard for me to do right now.”

Wetzel sees no need to rush things.

She is doing just fine, ostomy bag and all.

And she may have a chance to extend her athletic career beyond high school. The softball coach at Geneva College has shown interest in Wetzel and she made a visit to the campus.

“For a while there was a battle between softball and basketball for my favorite sport,” Wetzel said, chuckling. “After hearing the softball coach at Geneva when he talked to me and I realized I can actually play a sport in college, it gave me the drive to push a little bit harder in softball and in my other sports, because you never know what can happen.

“When you think of Kya at a college, you literally think Geneva,” she added, softly laughing again. “It’s small. It’s a 15-to-1 (student-to-teacher) ratio. I like that because I ask a lot of questions during school.”

She’s asked a lot of questions throughout her illness as well, and has become comfortable with the ostomy bag and where she is at this moment.

“It’s become part of my life,” Wetzel said. “I’m actually kind of worried when I go to get it reversed because I’ll feel like I’d be missing part of me. I’ve just gotten used to having it. Now it’s just routine.”

Wetzel was finally cleared in January of this year to resume sports and rejoined her basketball teammates at Union for the remainder of the season.

In the spring, she turned in a stellar season for the Union/A-C Valley softball co-op, both at the plate and in the field.

(Wetzel has become a stellar softball player for Union/A-C Valley)

Also a volleyball player, Wetzel has started strong again this winter for the newest co-op between Union and A-C Valley on the basketball court.

The guard scored 14 points in a season-opening win.

“Thank goodness for the co-op,” Wetzel said. “That’s saving my sports career because I know if it wasn’t for the co-op for softball and basketball, we would be in bad shape.

“I think me and (A-C Valley’s Maddy Dehart) are the only two who played softball together and now play basketball together. You could tell at the beginning of open gyms we were kind of separated into Union and A-C Valley. But now at practice, it’s just like we go to the same school every day and talk to each other all the time.”

And they’ve all rallied around Wetzel and her cause.

Wetzel wants to raise as much awareness about ulcerative colitis and help as many people as she can who have been stricken with the disease.

On Monday when the Union/A-C Valley girls basketball team hosts Clarion at A-C Valley High School, the team will hold a Shoot for the Cure – IBD Awareness Night.

Colitis falls under the umbrella of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (including Crohn’s) that currently have no cure.

Wetzel and the team will raise money through a 50/50 drawing and basket auctions. Shirt were already sold and ordered and Wetzel will also be collecting blankets as part of a blanket drive.

All proceeds will be given to the Western Pennsylvania/West Virginia Chapter of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. All blankets will go to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where Wetzel spent most of her ordeal.

“I like to incorporate it with my sports,” Wetzel said. “I thought the idea of doing something at a basketball game and also collecting blankets would be a good one.”

Wetzel said someone from the Ford City area has already donated 100 blankets.

(Blankets were a source of comfort for Wetzel during her recovery. She holds blanket drives now to donate to other patients so that they, too, can have some comfort as they heal)

Every little bit helps.

Wetzel knows that very well.

She remembers those scary days and nights when she was first diagnosed and wants to help other negotiate those unsettling times.

Someone to talk to. Someone who has made it. Someone to say everything is going to be all right.

“What really inspired me to do this was when I was diagnosed, I had no idea what it was, what ulcerative colitis was,” Wetzel said. “No one can tell you’re sick because it’s called an invisible disease. It really inspired me to go out and try to inform people and educate them on how bad this truly is. I feel like doing things. I do a blanket drive and I attended the Crohn’s & Colitis Gala that was held at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. I want them to have someone to talk to because I didn’t.”

Wetzel has already spoken to several young people who have been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.

“A couple of months ago, one of my doctors reached out to me and said that there was a nine-year-old girl going through the same thing I was and she was scared,” Wetzel said. “I did a Zoom call with her and got to talk with her for a little bit. I got another message that a 15-year-old girl was going through the same thing and wanted someone to talk to.”

Wetzel decided to make a visit.

“I looked at my mom and said, ‘Why don’t we just go down and see her in person so she can see how I am after a year?’” Wetzel said. “We went down and visited her, and she actually had surgery last Wednesday.”

Wetzel had few complications after her surgery. Unfortunately, the girl she visited has had more.

Wetzel said she is always there for her, or anyone else going through UC who needs to talk.

“The first thing they say is they’re scared and worried and you can just tell that they don’t know how to feel about it,” Wetzel said. “After I explain everything to them, they actually say they are excited to get it done. Sometimes just having someone to talk to makes all the difference in the world.

“When I was in their shoes, I didn’t have anyone to talk to,” she added. “I mean, I was blindsided. I didn’t know anyone my age who had their whole colon removed. Now I get to meet more people who do and have a chance to help them.”

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Redbank Valley, Keystone, and Union/A-C Valley sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Heeter Lumber.