FORWARD is a series from Student Affairs featuring Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, and alumni who have faced, overcome, or learned from life's obstacles and setbacks. FORWARD aims to normalize the conversation about hardships we endure and to encourage resilience.

Krista Gwilliam is a runner. An exercise enthusiast. A mom to two boys who keep her on her toes.

She’s also a patient at Duke University Hospital with a team of doctors and surgeons who’ve been treating a chronic, nearly debilitating condition for most of her life.

Gwilliam was born with congenital hip dysplasia, which means she didn’t have a left hip socket or a head to her left femur. The condition isn’t uncommon – occurring once in every 1,000 births – but it’s generally diagnosed by a physician immediately. Gwilliam wasn’t diagnosed until she was 14 months old.

“The doctors told my parents that I likely would never walk, and if I did, it would be a long road,” said Gwilliam.

A series of surgeries between the ages of 1 and 4 years old resulted in a lot of time spent in hospitals, wheelchairs, and a cast from her waist to her ankles. Since then, she’s had multiple surgeries every five years to restructure and reshape her body as she was growing, including two major ones during her sophomore and junior years of college. In April, she had a total hip replacement.

“I feel a little bit of that anger with every set of surgeries I go through,” said Gwilliam. “I feel like it’s super important to deal with it and feel those things. My dad taught me this idea that everybody has the right to be mad about stuff, but you’ve got to set a time frame to be mad and then move on. Those days definitely come, but I deal with it, sit in that space, and move on from it.”

Gwilliam graduated from Virginia Tech in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in communication and returned in 2015 as a fitness coordinator for Recreational Sports. In 2017, she transitioned to her current role of assistant director for fitness programs.

“I had every intention of working in public relations,” said Gwilliam. “As a student, I became a Rec Sports employee, and once I graduated, I knew this was the world I needed to be in.”

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What Gwilliam has endured, and how she’s learned to persevere, has influenced the way she leads her student staff members. “Just because you have something going on, whatever it may be, doesn’t mean you can’t be just as good as everybody else,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to lower our expectations.”

In the past, Gwilliam elected not to speak much about her hip dysplasia and its effects, mostly because she didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her. “I don’t want your sympathy. That doesn’t help me,” she said. “That doesn’t make me a better person.” But talking about what she’s going through and how it’s affecting her, both physically and emotionally, has helped create a safe space for her team. “I’m learning that talking about it is opening the door for students to realize that my life hasn’t been great all the time, but I have a job and a family, and I’m OK. The more I talk about it, the more I realize students are opening up on a deeper level.”

Russell T. Jones, a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech, suggests talking about challenges, whether physical, mental, or emotional, is helpful in dealing with them. “Try and talk with loved ones if at all possible,” he said. “Try to connect. Share your thoughts, feelings, and challenges that you’re going through. And if you can identify what it is that’s very burdensome to you, that can also help guide you. You can be more direct in terms of what steps you might actually take.”

While her diagnosis doesn’t define her, Gwilliam said it has certainly shaped aspects of her personality, such as her top three strengths: competition, achiever, and self-assurance. The obstacles placed in her way contributed to her developing a competitive spirit. She addresses problems with a determination to find solutions.

“My challenges have made me who I am, and they’ve impacted the way I look at things,” said Gwilliam. “I’ve learned it’s OK to step back and to slow down sometimes. We don’t have to be go-go-go. This last set of surgeries required me to sit for eight weeks, which forced me to stop and open my eyes a little bit. It’s continuing to help me be better.”

Written by Tiffany Woodall. Video produced by Andrew Huang ’19 and Christina Franusich.

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