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Winter 2004

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Coping with Catastrophe

Karolynn Siegel ’71 knows all about adversity. For thirty years she has researched and written about patients’ and families’ adjustments to cancer, AIDS, diabetes, death, and dying. A Columbia University professor of public health and director of its Center for the Psychosocial Study of Health and Illness, she is this year’s Periclean Alumni Scholar.

Siegel followed her sociology BA with a PhD. Then she added a layer of psychological expertise and plunged into research, earning numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society, and more. Now principal investigator on four national grants, she has co-authored nearly a hundred journal articles. (Titles include “Hope and resilience in the suicidal ideation and behavior of gay and bisexual men following notification of HIV infection,” “Children’s psychological distress following the deathof a parent,” “Correlates of depressive symptomology among adult daughter care-givers to a parent with cancer.”)

In her work Siegel has explored the life-transforming “stress-related growth” that some people experience upon emerging from a personal crisis. When a person’s normal self-protective illusions—“The world is safe, I’m a good person, I control my life”—are shattered, Siegel told a campus gathering last fall, it can offer a rare opportunity to think and feel in more profound ways. Such an outcome is more likely with others’ love and support, she noted, adding, “As an icon of my generation once said, ‘I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.’”

Siegel encouraged student Pericleans to “stay focused on the intrinsic rewards of your work.” For her, those include “bearing witness to the extraordinary courage and grace patients exhibit, and knowing that my work has the potential to improve, in some small way, the life and well-being of people struggling to cope with the emotional and social challenges posed by a catastrophic illness.” —BAM

 


© 2004 Skidmore College