One in Two Thousand: Katrina Wheelan ’21

Photo courtesy of Julia Cassell.

I met Katrina one of the first few nights of First Days, when we spent hours walking and talking around campus. This week,  I sat down with Katrina to hear more about her adventures during her gap year and her history of unconventional medical injuries.

So, how many fingers do you have?

I actually have nine fingers. When I was about 3 years old I got in a car accident. Our whole family was driving on the highway, and our car was a defective model, [so] we went over a patch of black ice and rolled over. Somehow in that whole mess my thumb came off. A couple months later I had an operation to move my index finger to the place of my thumb. I effectively have an opposable thumb, but I can’t bend it because some of the joints were injured.

What is it like to have nine fingers?

When I was younger, I tried to learn how to play the piano, but I had to stop that, both because I have no musical talent and because I was limited by the number of fingers. I guess you could say that’s been the biggest impact on my life. That, and I had to switch to being left-handed because I lost my thumb on my right hand. That being said, I wasn’t doing much writing at age 3, so it wasn’t a difficult shift. I can also only row starboard because I can’t feather without a thumb on my right hand. Whenever I wear gloves, there’s an awkward empty socket that freaks people out sometimes. Also, when I tried to get my Indian visa, there was a fingerprint scanning thing, and it had to have five points of contact. There was no way to run the program without having five fingers, so I spent 30 minutes in the Indian embassy in Myanmar trying to get my Indian visa, and it wouldn’t go through. Eventually the guy was like, “Whatever,” and I got my visa.

Do people notice that you only have nine fingers?

Most people usually notice the scar but don’t notice that I have nine fingers. Then I’m like, “I have nine fingers.” [First] they don’t believe me, and then most people count them. And indeed, I do have nine fingers.

Do you have other scars?

I also have a scar on my leg and my foot. I took a gap year last year and traveled in South America, and while I was in the Amazon, I was bitten by a sand-fly, which is a vector for a flesh-eating parasite called Leishmaniasis. I only realized I had it a couple of months later, after I had traveled from South America to Southeast Asia, and I had this weird, perfectly round hole in my leg. I eventually figured out what it was when I sent my grandma’s dermatologist a picture. I was in Vietnam at the time, where they couldn’t treat it, so I ended up going to Germany. My friend and I found a student room in Munich and stayed there for six weeks while I was getting treated at the Tropical Medicine Institute. At the time, the treatment wasn’t FDA-approved in the United States. It is now, luckily.

What did you do on your gap year?

I traveled for nine months, partially with my family, partially alone and partially with different friends, mostly in South America and Southeast Asia, with a six-week stint in Munich.

Do you have any other wild stories from your gap year?

My friend who I lived with in Germany for six weeks ended up traveling with me for another three months afterwards in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. Neither of us are very good at planning, so there was one moment when we decided to travel over land from southern Nepal to New Delhi, India without really realizing how far that is and how long that actually takes on somewhat tenuous transportation links. We found a series of buses, several of which broke down. We eventually found our way into a city just over the Indian border called Gorakhpur. We thought we could take a train from Gorakhpur to New Delhi, [not knowing] that Indian trains book up two or three weeks in advance. We also hadn’t thought to exchange any of our currency into Indian currency, so we had no money. We were stuck in this city for what looked to be at least two-and-a-half weeks before the next open train bed. And then the power went out in the entire city, so all the ATMs didn’t work. We ended up spending the night in the train station. We eventually found our way to an ATM in a mall that had a generator and got into a third-class train compartment on a 17-hour train to New Delhi the next morning. There were cockroaches the size of rats and rats the size of small dogs. I’m pretty sure most of them were rabid. It was an interesting experience. My friend was pretty sure she had tuberculosis when we came back, and she had a series of tests, all of which came back positive. Then she had to get a bunch of bloodwork, which came back inconclusive. After her 10th blood sample, they realized that she was negative. But I was freaking out because if she had tuberculosis, [then] I had tuberculosis. [That would’ve been] just what I needed, another tropical disease.

How do you think taking a gap year has affected your first-year experience at Williams?

One of the most rewarding parts of my gap year, but not necessarily one of the most pleasant parts of my gap year, was traveling alone for some sections. I think that helped me become more comfortable being alone. [I’m] more confident relying exclusively on myself, but [I’m] also more willing to ask for help. The other piece was having an entire year where there was really no structure, at least in the way that I organized my gap year. I ended up just naturally being drawn to certain things, so it helped me figure out what I’m interested in in life and academics. I was drawn to specific types of books and developed this interest in history, which I never had in high school. I think I am getting more out of college for having taken a step back and spent an entire structure-less year reflecting on myself, my life and what I want out of my college experience.

How did you arrive at Williams for First Days?

I actually biked to school. I live in Hanover, N.H., which is about 150 miles away by biking. I biked to school in two days. I spent the night in Manchester, Vt. and then biked the rest [during] the morning of move-in day. My parents drove all my stuff in the car, so I wasn’t entirely independent. It was interesting to show up to sign-in in Paresky dripping in sweat in my bike shoes and tight biking shorts. I was like, “Oh God, everyone I’m gonna live with is seeing me right now, thinking, ‘Why is this person wearing spandex?’” The first thing I did was take a shower, which was definitely needed.

Tell me about your experiences hiking in the New England area.

I live in New Hampshire, and there are 48 4000-foot mountains there. I actually hiked all of them my junior summer of high school. A friend and I decided to hike every single mountain that qualifies as a 4000-footer. You get a little certificate, and you get admitted to the 4000-foot club, which entails a pizza dinner and a little awards ceremony, so I’d say it was worth it.

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