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Courtenay Zurenko named Loyola's Patient of the Year

Courtenay and Joe Zurenko, of Elmhurst, watch their son, 20-month-old Riley, play with blocks in their living room on Tuesday. Courtenay recently wrote the book, “Seizing Faith,” which explains her experience being diagnosed and treated for dermatomyositis, a rare autoimmune disease.
Courtenay and Joe Zurenko, of Elmhurst, watch their son, 20-month-old Riley, play with blocks in their living room on Tuesday. Courtenay recently wrote the book, “Seizing Faith,” which explains her experience being diagnosed and treated for dermatomyositis, a rare autoimmune disease.

ELMHURST — When Courtenay Zurenko's mild sunburn didn't heal itself in a matter of days, she knew something was different, but couldn't have guessed the severity of what would come.

Through the ordeal that followed, though, Zurenko maintained a level of optimism and faith that inspired Loyola Hospital to name her as one of its patients of the year this month.

The symptoms started a few weeks after giving birth to a healthy boy named Riley. Zurenko, her husband Joe and the baby took a trip to Wisconsin, where she spent a little too much time in the sun.

"It was little pink, it was nothing abnormal," the now 29-year-old Elmhurst resident said. "We got back from this trip and, usually, my sunburn turns into a tan. But it was really, really itchy. Basically it was a relentless itch that started to spread. That was weird because I've never experienced that with a sunburn before."

Around this time, she also started to get unusually tired, which she initially attributed to the sporadic sleeping patterns of a newborn baby.

"At one point, I knew something was odd," she said. "I knew that I wasn't just over-tired."

By late summer, it had gotten to where she had a hard time taking care of Riley during the day without assistance, and the family moved into her parents' house temporarily.

Zurenko sought the opinion from different doctors, who struggled to diagnose the condition, investigating possible lupus, mono and other diseases.

By Labor Day, Joe drove Courtenay to the Loyola Hospital emergency room, where doctors called in rheumatologist Ruth Kadanoff, who quickly diagnosed Zurenko with dermatomyositis, an auto-immune disease.

Doctors don't know the exact cause of dermatomyositis, Kadanoff said, but believe a simple sunburn can often prompt the body's immune system into overdrive, attacking healthy muscle cells and causing the rare disease that affects only 1 in 100,000 people. It's not curable, but it is manageable, she said.

"I was scared," Zurenko said. "So was my husband."

At first, treatment was positive and she went home to her parents' house.

"I was doing pretty well, and after a week I just tanked," he said. "I got swollen eyes. All of my limbs, my joints were swollen. It felt like my limbs were filled with cement, they were so heavy. I didn't want to jump back to the hospital, but then I got to the point where I couldn't swallow.

"I ended up going back to Loyola. The doctor said 'Bypass the ER. I'll admit you right away.'"

Doctors checked her blood pressure, which was "through the roof." That's when she had her first grand mal seizure. She was experiencing an abnormal reaction to her prednisone prescription, causing extreme high blood pressure, which in turn triggered her seizures. She also had abnormal reactions to two other drugs.

"I had three (seizures), two in that room of the hospital," she said. "And they took me to the (intensive care unit) and I had my third one there. That was pretty scary. They had no clue why that was going on. Later they would figure out I was having a negative reaction to my treatment."

Doctors told her that another seizure could have caused brain damage. Luckily, before she had another seizure, doctors tried a new treatment that worked. It caused her hair to fall out, but her condition turned around. The hardest part of those three weeks in the hospital was not being able to be with her new-born son.

"Riley visited twice, I think, while I was in the hospital," she said. "But, I still couldn't hold him. They could set him in my lap."

The support of her friends and family — and the staff at the hospital that she also became close to — and her faith moved her through the difficult time.

"I struggled with depression but I also have a very strong faith that I relied on every single day," she said.

After three weeks in the hospital, she returned home. Dermatomyositis had caused substantial muscle loss throughout her body, Kadanoff said.

"I couldn't sit up and I couldn't hold my head up very well," Zurenko said. "I couldn't make it to the bathroom on your own, I couldn't put on my clothes or put my hair in a ponytail."

At-home physical therapy helped her gradually become a mom again. She also used this time to write a book about her experienced named "Seizing Faith: Feeling God's Hands Through His Life-Changing Plans."

"I hadn't experienced anything that difficult in my life previously, and I felt it was so important to share with people the real feelings you go through —depression, shame, guilt even. And hopefully comfort other people and bring them hope and peace that I experienced through my faith."

She said the new perspective on life are one of the many blessings in disguise to come from the illness.

"I knew it was God's peace that he had given me, so it was pretty amazing," she said.

Zurenko is not cured, but she is in good health and has experienced only minor flare-ups of skin rash.

"I'm blessed and thankful to be home with Riley," she said. "After spending that time away from him, I feel like I appreicate the smallest moments."

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