Graduating student overcomes debilitating disease, family struggles

Whitney Ohlhausen in the Bowen School of Law library.

Whitney Ohlhausen, set to graduate next week, had to endure eight potentially life-threatening surgeries, 17 additional operations, and numerous family-related challenges before she could reach that goal.

Ohlhausen, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law student, was born in Abilene, Texas, but spent most of her life in Dallas. She long had the agility of an athlete, the mind of a scholar, and the attitude of a go-getter.

Those attributes would come in handy as Ohlhausen’s life took an unexpected turn her sophomore year of high school.

Without warning, her father abandoned the family, leaving behind a mother and two daughters. With devastation and confusion filling the home, Ohlhausen’s younger sister, who was 15, turned to heroin.

Not long after Ohlhausen learned of her sister’s drug use, their mother lost her job of 15 years.

Witnessing life as she knew it crumble, Ohlhausen did what she could to maintain her composure.

“I was watching everyone around me fall apart, and I literally could not,” she said. “I didn’t think about the bad things. I would pick something and throw myself at it so I wouldn’t get lost. It could be anything like working out, playing a sport, or being at the top of my class.”

Although life was far from what she imagined it would be, Ohlhausen pushed to improve and to serve as a role model for her sister.

Harding University offered her a golf scholarship, and she earned the team’s Freshman of the Year award.

Ohlhausen excelled in the classroom, just as she had on the golf course. Keeping her mind off family issues was one of her strongest motivators. Some semesters, she took 21 course hours, and she also was enrolled in summer classes.

By the time she reached her junior year, Ohlhausen had enough credits to graduate. With finals on the horizon, she prepared for her next venture — law school.  

‘Deathly ill’

During her final Thanksgiving break, Ohlhausen headed home to Dallas to spend a week with her family. Little did she know, she wouldn’t return to school for a year.

“It was a slow demise that week,” she said. “I thought I had the flu, and then I had a fever and a bunch of stomach problems. I thought, ‘We’ve got to go to the hospital because I’m feeling terrible.’”

Because Ohlhausen was hospitalized on break, she missed finals.

“I had gone all semester and done great,” she said. “They originally said I wouldn’t get credit for that semester. I had to show them I wasn’t just sick, but deathly ill.”

When Ohlhausen arrived at the hospital, doctors thought she either had an E. coli or a bacterial infection.

“I was in awesome shape, and I played a college sport,” she said. “Nothing was wrong with me. I never had health problems, other than my knee or something, and all of a sudden I’m dying, and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.”

Doctors diagnosed ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in the digestive tract.

Not deterred by her state of health, Ohlhausen focused on getting out of the hospital.

“I used my struggle to empower me,” she said.

In December, Ohlhausen began treatment. She soon realized she was allergic to the medicine, which caused her to go into anaphylactic shock.

“The first time they gave it to me, I was fine,” she said. “The second time I got it, my mom had gone downstairs and I was by myself. I was on my phone and I lost my hearing. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, so I took a deep breath and screamed. When I woke up I was in intensive care.”

Ohlhausen was traumatized.

By January, she lost 50 pounds and experienced crippling arthritis. Doctors decided that in order for Ohlhausen to live, they had to remove her colon and part of her small intestine.

Whitney Ohlhausen with the Bowen School of Law in the background
Whitney Ohlhausen with the Bowen School of Law in the background. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UA Little Rock Communications

Law school complications

Following surgery, Ohlhausen’s health improved.

In August, she was permitted to take her finals and graduated May 2013.

After earning her undergraduate degree, Ohlhausen took a year to regroup but made plans to attend UA Little Rock Bowen School of Law in the fall.

In 2014, Ohlhausen attended her first week of law school, but soon had to be readmitted to the hospital for another surgery due to complications related to the removal of her colon.

“I had some people at the law school say if I came back, it would be too hard because I’d already missed too much, and I should take a year and come back,” she said. “I said ‘No. Absolutely not.’”

During her first semester of law school, Ohlhausen ran a fever of 101 degrees every day. She made it to finals and then had more complications.

“My doctor called and told me that I had to get to Dallas because my blood work was really bad,” she said.

Determined not to let anything stop her, Ohlhausen finished her finals before leaving town.

Two degrees down, the bar to go

Now ready to graduate with a law degree at the end of the spring semester, Ohlhausen is in better health than she has been in years.

“I truly believe in this life, we’re given trials and tribulations, but God comforts us so that we can comfort others,” she said.

Ecstatic about the academic progress she made and her improved health, Ohlhausen is further relieved to know her work as a role model paid off. While in law school, she found a rehab program in her hometown for her sister.

“She is now sober, married, and has a beautiful baby boy,” Ohlhausen said.

After law school, Ohlhausen plans to pass the bar exam and wants to work in Little Rock as a general defense attorney.

The Spring 2017 Commencement will be Saturday, May 13, 2017, at the UA Little Rock Jack Stephens Center.


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