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The University of Chicago Medicine - Comer Children's Hospital
At the Forefront of Kids' Medicine

Physician Thanked for Seeing a Patient Through

When Skylar Houseman's right knee began to swell, her mother, Gretchen Houseman, thought it may have been an injury. The 4-year-old was taking ballet classes near their home in Jonesboro, a small town close to the southern tip of Illinois. The swelling persisted, though, and Houseman took Skylar to see the family physician. Eventually, they learned Skylar had juvenile idiopathic arthritis and uveitis--Skylar was in danger of going blind.

Uveitis, a chronic inflammation of the middle layer of the eye, caused Skylar to go through three pairs of glasses in three months. She began running into furniture and into walls. Concerned with Skylar’s deteriorating vision, the Housemans sought treatment from Karen Onel, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and specialist in pediatric rheumatology.

Dr. Onel put Skylar on a succession of anti-inflammatory medications and coordinated her efforts with other specialists, including an ophthalmologist and a uveitis specialist from a nearby academic medical center. Skylar’s vision has since been stable, and she can now see with glasses.

Dr. Karen Onel and Skylar Houseman

The past six years, however, have not been easy for Skylar. She was allergic to a number of her prescribed medications. She also developed both cataracts and glaucoma as a result of her uveitis. In 2007, Skylar also was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder Hashimoto's thyroiditis, a chronic disease that attacks the thyroid.

Dr. Onel, who has two daughters around Skylar's age, said the Housemans have been optimistic during a situation in which it was easy to get frustrated. Skylar’s best-case scenario, Dr. Onel said, is that she maintains her eyesight, since it is impossible to regain the vision she’s already lost. Skylar’s right eye is so afflicted by the uveitis that she relies on her left eye, which is both nearsighted and farsighted. Still, Skylar’s arthritis hasn’t caused any permanent damage. She won’t lose any mobility in her arms and legs as she gets older.

“It’s important she stay functional and active,” Dr. Onel said. “But I’m not worried about that. I’ve never seen a family like the Housemans. They are always on top of Skylar’s treatment. They’ve never even missed an appointment.”

On days when Skylar had an appointment, the family would leave Jonesboro at six in the morning, with seven hours of driving ahead of them. Skylar, her mother, her younger brother Hunter, and her grandmother Barb, kept each other entertained by playing Uno, telling jokes, and listening to the radio. They made this trip as frequently as once a week. Despite the distance, Houseman believes that seeking treatment from the University of Chicago Medicine was the best decision she ever made for her daughter’s health, as well as their experience overall.

“Everyone I come into contact with at the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine helps us,” Houseman said. “A smile, a hello, a ‘how are you today,’ these all make things a bit easier to deal with.” The child life specialists were fantastic, according to Houseman, as well as the Special Procedures Area nursing team.

Houseman praised Dr. Onel in a recent letter to Everett E. Vokes, MD, interim dean of the Biological Sciences Division and Pritzker School of Medicine. 

“Dr. Onel’s insight, diagnostic abilities, compassion, and genuine affection for Skylar have made a very scary and potentially dangerous disease both better and easier to deal with,” Houseman wrote. “Without her, I am not sure where Skylar would be today."