The faces of psoriasis: College students speak out

April 1, 2006

Both David Vartanian and Sharma Kiesner have successfully tackled the challenges of having psoriasis as teenagers and as college students. As well as coping successfully with their own illness, they've become spokesmen for other young people with psoriasis.

Both David Vartanian and Sharma Kiesner have successfully tackled the challenges of having psoriasis as teenagers and as college students. As well as coping successfully with their own illness, they've become spokesmen for other young people with psoriasis.

Ms. Kiesner often says that she's "been to hell and back" in dealing with her psoriasis. Diagnosed at age 11, she suffered flare-ups that were often so bad that psoriatic plaques covered almost her entire body.

"There were times when I couldn't walk, and I missed over a year of high school because of my symptoms," she says. Yet the teen still graduated with honors.

The first dermatologist she saw in Connecticut advised her to take a semester off from college and check into a hospital to get her psoriasis under control. But Ms. Kiesner wanted to live as normal a life as possible, so chose instead to spend the next three years searching for another dermatologist. She's now on a biologic that controls her symptoms effectively.

Ms. Kiesner is very open about her psoriasis with friends as well as curious strangers.

"Even when I'm broke out, I'll wear a tank top when my friends and I go out to a bar - like the other girls. If I get questions from strangers, I'll spend 20 minutes explaining psoriasis to them."

On campus, she has a reputation as a spokeswoman for people with psoriasis. In fact, the president of the university once asked her to recommend a dermatologist - because he has psoriasis as well.

"I used to say that psoriasis was my greatest weakness. Now I say it's my greatest strength. It's taught me that you can't judge people," Ms. Kiesner says.

Ms. Kiesner studies marketing and economics, works in student government and has worked part time for spending money throughout her time in college. She also spent a semester studying abroad in Italy. She dates regularly, and explains right away to friends and dates about her condition and how it affects her. She even has a photo of herself on her Web site, which shows her covered with plaques during a flare.

"Sometimes people don't understand, and they can be cruel," she says. "Some of my friends don't understand why I get fatigued when we go to the mall (Ms. Kiesner has psoriatic arthritis), and they don't like seeing me giving myself shots."

Having professional counseling about the emotional aspects of psoriasis has helped Ms. Kiesner deal with the attitudes of others.

"The only problem for patients with psoriasis is that it can be difficult to find psychologists who are familiar with the emotional aspects of psoriasis. I've had counselors tell me,'Well, it's just a rash.' And that advice just isn't helpful."

David Vartanian, on the other hand, first noticed he had psoriasis during a running event in high school. He was 16. "When I first went to see a dermatologist, the idea of having psoriasis was very scary. The dermatologist came out in a white gown, white gloves and goggles to examine me. It scared me to death," he says.

Mr. Vartanian, however, decided to be proactive about his disease and became active with the National Psoriasis Foundation. He even went to the foundation's annual conference, where he found out about the phototherapy and topicals he now uses to control his disease.

"It was a big turning point for me because I met people who had psoriasis just like me," he says.

Mr. Vartanian has endured his share of put-downs about his appearance during flares. It does help that he installed a UVB light unit in his home, where he can get regular treatments that control his illness, and that he has very supportive friends and family, he says.