Karolien Verheyen, a teacher and musician from Belgium, was already educated to Master’s-degree level when she began studying with The Open University. After being diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a rare illness affecting her organs, Karolien was inspired to learn more about the human body and its functions.
Initially signing up for a module in Human Biology, Karolien has now achieved an OU BSc Open Degree with a science focus, an OU Master’s degree in Science, and has worked on a clinical research project at UZ Leuven in Belgium. Now she’s busy setting up a patient support group for others in her position and hopes to speak at the European Respiratory Society (ERS) International Congress 2022 about sarcoidosis.
“I gained many, many new skills”
When Karolien first enrolled with the OU, she was already highly qualified with a Masters-level photography degree and a teaching qualification from Belgium, as well as a diploma gained while living in Ireland. She says studying with the OU helped to boost her CV with a multitude of helpful new skills.
“I gained more knowledge in biology, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, psychology, and maths as well as many, many new skills. I learnt skills such as reading quickly and understanding, which was excellent as I could quickly grasp the sense of a paper for the first time in my life,” she said.
“My degree was made up of modules including Human Biology, Exploring Science and many others such as maths, chemistry, research, and biochemistry. For my Master’s degree I did more biochemistry, psychology, sociology, psychiatry and a research project on sarcoidosis.
“I wanted to do something for my fellow patients, so I looked at psychological wellbeing in sarcoidosis patients. Too often this aspect of a patient’s health is forgotten by doctors, which is why I would like to talk about it at ERS International Congress 2022.”
“Distance learning with the OU was so convenient for me”
After being diagnosed in 2007, Karolien decided that by learning more about the human body, she’d be able to stand firm when talking to doctors and nurses about her little-known condition.
“I was living in rural County Kerry in Ireland when I decided I wanted to study again. I was working full time, looking after my dog and two cats, and was on medication for my sarcoidosis. So the only option was distance learning.
“Thankfully the OU offered a very good option for me, and courses of an excellent standard. It was a big investment, but very convenient for my situation, so it was worth the money.”
Karolien – who also has many music qualifications under her belt – enjoyed supported distance learning with the OU and says learning on the go became a feature of her life.
“I found distance learning to be very good for me. I managed to keep to a time schedule and found myself studying everywhere – I always had my books with me! The best thing about it was sitting at home in my pyjamas studying and reading about science!”
“I always set aside study time and time to do other things and made sure I studied for two to three hours a day, five days a week. That way I could have weekends off.
“The materials were very good and very well structured, and the tutors were great too.”
“I had so many sources of inspiration”
Despite all her well-laid plans, Karolien did face numerous challenges during her studies which made things tricky at times.
“I moved back to Belgium in 2011 when I was still doing my BSc Open Degree. Moving country and moving house often, as well as my personal health problems, made everything a challenge. I got support from a counsellor, therapist and friends and family which helped. Thankfully, the OU was very understanding when things were rough for me,” she said.
“At the end of my BSc I was very tired and worn down, so I struggled to concentrate and stay on track. After the Biochemistry module I felt like I wanted to quit as I’d found it so hard. But I tried again and passed – then later, when I looked at the material again for my Master’s degree, it all fell into place and was much easier to grasp.
“I managed to maintain my motivation though, as I had so many sources of inspiration. These included certain professors of sarcoidosis, fellow patients, learning new things about the science subjects I was studying, being part of such a large international university, and studying in English.”
“Now I can stand my ground when discussing my condition”
After graduating, Karolien went to work at UZ Leuven, a hospital in Belgium, where she helped on a research project on sarcoidosis.
She is also in talks with ERS International Congress 2022 about doing a presentation at the event, on psychological wellbeing and sarcoidosis, and is in the process of setting up a patient support group in Belgium near her home. She said:
“Studying with the OU definitely changed my life.
“I gained much more insight into sarcoidosis, and learnt so much about the human body, the life of the cell and so on. I now feel totally confident when I talk to doctors and nurses about my condition, which is what I was aiming for.”