Before she got sick, Keira McGrenehan didn’t know much about college rowing.
“Rowing is not really for my age group,” said Keira, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at MaST Community Charter School in Philadelphia.
It is now. With the help of Penn’s women’s rowing team, the sport is bringing her joy and relief as she manages an illness that would knock many grown-ups to their knees.
Keira’s journey to the Ivy League boathouse began in early 2017 when she was felled by terrible stomach pain and irregular, bloody bowel movements. Rounds of testing led to a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes long-lasting inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract.
The disease can be hereditary and, indeed, there have been some related health problems in the McGrenehan family. Still, Keira’s diagnosis was a shock. Of the 900,000-plus Americans diagnosed annually with the disease, most are in their mid-30s.
Keira required months of treatment to stabilize her health and was hospitalized for eight days at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) when her blood counts crashed, leading to dehydration.
While Keira has maintained her grades at school, nausea has sometimes sidelined her from swimming and playing basketball. And she can be nervous in group settings, where fatigue, abdominal pain and frequent bathroom visits make her self-conscious.
“She’s young and scared, with all of the hospital stays and the blood transfusions,” said her father, Mike McGrenehan. “It’s not easy.”
Keira’s anxiety can sometimes be “through the roof,” added her mom, Jamie. “She doesn’t like going to sleep because she thinks she won’t wake up.”
Where Keira has found hope and happy distraction from worry is among the student athletes of the Penn women’s rowing team, whose members have “adopted” her through a national program called Team Impact, which connects kids with serious and chronic illnesses to college athletic teams.
Keira and her parents heard about Team Impact through CHOP’s ChildLife specialists, who explained the nonprofit’s goal: to create bonds of friendship in a team setting in which “kids and athletes accept, motivate and inspire one another, changing the game for everyone involved.”
Plus, it’s fun.
For a few blissful hours every Friday, Keira joins the women in the school’s rowing center, working out on ergometers and exercise bikes or serving as coxswain for drills. The team even held a “signing ceremony” to officially place Keira on their roster.
“I love hanging out with the girls and learning to row,” says Keira, who knows she can depend on her older teammates for support and encouragement. “A lot of kids don’t get to do this.”
“We’ve been so excited to have her with us, so we can know her and understand her difficulties and victories,” said team captain Romy Simpson.
Keira’s parents say their daughter’s spirits have lifted dramatically since joining.
“The rowers help her feel better physically and more at ease when it comes to meeting new people and trying new things,” Jamie said.
For Keira, Team Impact has expanded her sense of possibility about life.
“Maybe one day,” she said, “I’ll go to Penn — and I’ll get to row.”