Alum’s path to graduation includes selfless gift to her dad
When Pennsylvania College of Technology radiography student Sarah S. Conrath crossed the stage at commencement ceremonies on Aug. 6, she celebrated not only the culmination of her education, but a personal triumph that has deeper meaning for her family — especially her father.
Conrath, of Pottsville, began providing care long before she entered a health care major at Penn College.
When she was in middle school, Conrath’s father, Nathan, was diagnosed with diabetes. In her junior year of high school, Nathan was on a hunting trip with his father when, alone in the woods, he became very ill. Following that scary event, he had several more bouts that sent him to the hospital. He eventually learned he had kidney disease. Over time, high levels of sugar in a person’s blood can lead to kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
“He was in and out of the hospital so much that they talked dialysis options,” Conrath said of her father.
When he was fitted with a port that would allow him to receive dialysis at home, Sarah and her grandmother (with whom she, her father, grandfather and a few other family members live) became certified to help administer it.
By that time, Conrath had graduated from Shamokin Area High School and was attending Penn College while working at a Sheetz store. When her shift there ended at 10 p.m., she headed home, helped her father to connect to the dialysis machine and got ready for bed. Between 5 and 6 a.m., she got up, unhooked him, discarded the heavy bag of liquid that resulted from the treatment, and went back to sleep. Her father used the dialysis machine every night.
“Once he was put on dialysis, he started to look better,” Conrath said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Conrath chose to pursue a degree in nursing at Penn College. But in the first semester, she realized it was not the right health career path for her and spoke to her parents, who reminded her that she really liked seeing X-rays.
She changed her major to radiography and found the right fit.
“I like seeing the different kinds of things that can happen to your body — the way bones regrow themselves,” the dean’s list student said. “We get patients who come in for follow-up, and you can see fractures healing.”
“Sarah shows the same care, empathy and compassion to every patient who crosses her path in radiography,” said Christine L. Eckenrod, director of Penn College’s radiography program. “Her experiences taking care of an ill family member have given her a perspective that is translated to the clinical setting every day. She is always patient, kind, empathetic and professional — the patient always comes first.”
In Fall 2019, during the beginning of her sophomore year at Penn College, Conrath was told she could apply to become a kidney donor for her father. She did so immediately.
“As soon as he was diagnosed, I told everyone: ‘Once he’s on the donor list, this is what I’m going to do.’ I didn’t really think about it. I just decided this is what I’m going to do,” she explained.
After applying, she learned she had the right blood type, then underwent six months of additional tests.
The call that she had finally been approved to donate her kidney to her father came while Sarah, her dad and grandmother were on their way to the emergency room at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. It delivered bright news during a bad moment.
“He wasn’t feeling well,” Conrath said. “The transplant coordinator called and said, ‘You got approved.’ We were literally in the car on the way to the ER.”
A surgery date was set for July 2, 2020.
“Once it all started moving, it all moved fast,” Conrath said. “I feel like everything happened in a blink of an eye.”
A few weeks after the surgery, she began the “professional phase” of her radiography education, which includes clinical rotations in area hospitals – as an incision that stretched from her mid-torso to her belly button continued to heal. It was painful “but not awful,” she says. But even if she’d thought it would be, it wouldn’t have changed her mind.
“Sarah was very selfless in her decision to donate her kidney,” Eckenrod said. “Having surgery can interfere or delay progress in a clinical program, but she was determined to help her father; her education was not at the center of her decision — in a good way. It was ‘I have to help my father, I will worry about school after that.'”
Thanks to that decision, her father has regained his health.
“He finally gets to do normal things, so I’m glad,” Sarah said. “He goes hunting; he goes fishing. He does everything.”
That “everything” includes watching Sarah cross the Community Arts Center stage to receive her degree, a stepping stone she’ll use to move to Maryland with her boyfriend and begin a career in caring.