Student draws strength from WU community to overcome personal loss

by Tom Morlan,

  • Katie Lee headshot
  • katie lee in cadaver lab
  • Katie Lee at a computer in a research lab with a student lying on a bed with a ventilator on
  • Katie Lee applies works on the leg of a student

During a time of pain and healing, Katie Lee’s professors and classmates inspired her to make the most of her life.

For Katie Lee ’20, Willamette has been more than a place to pursue her passion for science. It’s been a place of healing during one of the darkest periods in her life.

Losing a loved one is never easy, especially when it’s someone you’ve known since childhood. But as Lee reflects on the events of the past two years and looks ahead to the future, she’ll never forget the support she’s received from the Willamette community.

“I’ve been surrounded by so many people who really supported me and believed in me, and I’ve been able to do more than I ever expected,” Lee said. “Coming here was the best decision of my life.”

Finding her way to Willamette

Lee first heard about Willamette from her father, Johnny Lee, who graduated from the university in 1985. She always thought the campus was beautiful, but she was leaning toward larger schools as she was finishing her senior year at West Torrance High School in California.

“I wasn’t planning on coming here at all, but then I applied just for fun,” Lee recalled. “The scholarship was amazing, and the 3-2 engineering program drew me in because I was interested in bioengineering.”

Willamette was also closer to Lewis-McChord Military Base in Fort Lewis, Washington, where her longtime boyfriend, Marc Guerreva, was serving as an Army Airborne Ranger. She headed up to Salem in the fall of 2016 and made Willamette her new home.

After sampling a variety of classes, Lee briefly considered majoring in psychology. That changed when Associate Professor of Exercise and Health Science Luke Ettinger offered her an anatomy lab instructor position at the end of her second semester.

“It was amazing — I didn't expect to come here and get a job like that,” Lee said.”I was very intrigued by the cadavers because anatomy was my favorite subject in high school. 

“I ended up being the youngest teaching assistant in the lab — the rest were seniors. I really looked up to them, and I wanted to be like them one day.”

Lee switched her major to exercise and health science and prepared for her sophomore year. She also joined the Alpha Chi Omega sorority, where she made the best friends of her life.

A time of transition and growth

Guerreva would often visit Lee when he was on leave. He quickly became part of the campus community, playing catch with members of Willamette’s baseball team and forging friendships with other students.

“He was a very personable individual,” Lee said. “He made a lot of friends on his own and kind of created a life for himself here.” 

Even when Guerreva and Lee decided they needed some space, they remained the closest of friends. They’d known each other since middle school, and they both expected to be a part of each other’s lives in the future.

The summer after her sophomore year, Lee decided to contact the head of the bioengineering program at UCLA. She was particularly interested in tissue engineering, and she wanted to get more information about bioengineering before dedicating her life to it.

Her family and friends encouraged her to ask about potential internship opportunities in the lab, so she brought her resume. The informal meeting quickly turned into a job interview, and her experiences at Willamette were integral to securing a prestigious internship.

“What actually got me the job was the fact that I’d worked in the cadaver lab at Willamette, so I was familiar with doing dissections,” Lee recalled. “The study they were running at UCLA involved animal surgery — it was a muscle atrophy prevention and nerve regeneration study — and the skills I’d picked up in the cadaver lab were going to be very useful in that job.”

But before Lee could fully delve into her research work, the unthinkable happened.

A tragic turn of events

It was July 5, 2018, just after midnight, and Guerreva was heading north on Interstate 5 in Southern California. He’d just passed Bakersfield when a wrong-way driver heading southbound hit Guerreva’s vehicle head on. Both drivers died at the scene.

“It was just crazy — he was deployed in Afghanistan, but what killed him was a drunk driver here,” Lee said. “He was just about to turn 21.”

The days and weeks that followed were mentally and emotionally exhausting. At first, she wasn’t sure if she could continue with the internship, but her supervisor gave her some time to grieve and be with family. She continued her research on a limited basis for about a month before returning to the lab full time.

“It was hard because I was living alone in that area over the summer,” Lee said. “I had a lot of time to myself, which when you're grieving is not necessarily the best thing. But I knew I’d regret it if I just walked away from the job, because it was an amazing opportunity.

“It gave me something to do, something to look forward to, a reason to get up. If I hadn’t had that job, I think I would’ve fallen into a deep depression. Having somewhere to go to get my mind off everything was very beneficial, because when I'm in the lab, my focus is on my work.”

A time for healing

She completed her internship before turning her attention to her junior year. She thought about staying home for part of the semester because she wasn’t sure how people would perceive her in light of the tragedy. 

“I was kind of scared to go out and face everyone,” Lee said. “My biggest fear was that people were going to look at me as if I were broken in a way.” 

But every professor she knew reached out to her, and her friends rallied around her from the moment she returned to campus. She was sad, and the memory was still fresh, but she knew she had to carry on.

“I was so afraid I was going to hold myself back and fall into a funk,” Lee said. “But what ended up helping me the most was knowing how much support I had here. They helped me get back to feeling normal again and feeling like I wanted to make the most of my life.”

She’s particularly grateful for the support she received from faculty in the Exercise and Health Science Department — not just in the aftermath of Guerreva’s passing, but also during the summer of 2019. 

When she had to go to the hospital for an unexpected surgical procedure, Ettinger (who was also her neighbor) looked after her dog. And when she woke up in her hospital room following surgery, Professor of Exercise and Health Science Peter Harmer was there to greet her.

Committed to creating a healthier future

Lee has definitely made the most of her time at Willamette. In addition to continuing her work as a lab instructor, she’s served as senior executive on the Exercise and Health Science Student Executive Board. She’s also teamed up with Ettinger on a groundbreaking study.

The researchers are investigating why type 2 diabetics often have trouble perceiving where their body position is in space. These types of “proprioception errors” lead to a greater risk of falls.

“A non-diabetic doesn’t have to think about where they're putting their feet when they’re walking,” Lee said. “But a diabetic has to look at their feet and make sure they're putting one foot in front of the other. We’re trying to find the mechanism behind proprioception errors.”

They’ve had the opportunity to present their research at several professional conferences, including the American College of Sports Medicine Conference in Boise, Idaho. She hopes their work will eventually help researchers who are investigating potential treatment options.

After graduating Sunday, Lee will take a year off from school to conduct research at Oregon Health & Science University’s Knight Cancer Institute. Then she’ll move on to graduate work in bioengineering or biomedical engineering.

Lee wants to make a difference. She wants to make the most of her time on this earth. And as she goes about her life, Guerreva will continue to serve as a source of strength and hope.

“I think that his passing kind of pushed me to do more with myself,” Lee said. “It wasn’t easy, but I’ve tried to find light in this situation. I think, ‘What would Marc want me to do? How would he want me to succeed — and how can I get there?’”

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