In just a few weeks, Molly Atwater ’17, M.S. ’18 will walk across the stage at Commencement with her master’s degree in computational operations research. One month later, she will undergo surgery to have her colon removed. This last year for Atwater has been filled with medical procedures, graduate classes and a lot of ups and downs. Now, she has finally rung the Sir Christopher Wren Bell and is looking forward to graduating and moving to Washington, D.C. to begin a consulting job.
Atwater’s path to the College of William and Mary was marked by her family history. The college search process left her comparing everywhere she toured to the liberal arts college in Williamsburg where her parents met. She first visited the College in 2003, and she said she’s had Tribe pride flowing in her veins ever since. Her family’s contemporary history is tied to the College, as well. Her dad, Peter Atwater ’83, is a professor in the economics department, and her younger brother is an undergraduate student.
When Atwater started as an undergraduate, she knew she wanted to be a math major because she loved logic puzzles. She said that her dream major would have been one specializing in logic puzzles, and then, she stumbled upon a fortuitous topic on the math department’s website.
“I ended up doing some sleuthing on the math website and I came across operations research,” Atwater said. “I was like ‘OK, I think I found what I was supposed to be doing.’ I was one of those very annoying freshman who wanted to know how to set myself up for the future, so I talked with professor [Lawrence Leemis] in the math office and I planned out my entire five years. The computational operations research — we call it the COR program — is a two-year master’s, but because of the AP credits I had acquired in high school, I did half of my master’s as an undergrad. I knew I loved William and Mary and I didn’t want to leave the swamp, so I stuck around for an extra year.”
As an undergraduate, Atwater also completed a minor in linguistics after stumbling upon The Study of Language class to fulfill a GER requirement. When she realized that linguistics was a way to look at the logic behind languages, she said she found a passion for it and ended up completing a minor just by taking classes that were interesting to her.
Leading up to her senior year, Atwater worked as a fitness instructor at the Campus Recreation Center teaching body combat classes, was a member of the Pointe Blank Dance Company, and once participated in a Sinfonicron show. However, she said Campus Recreation was her biggest time commitment.
“One of the things that I loved the most about being a group fitness instructor was meeting people where they were,” Atwater said. “As the instructor, you’re supposed to be on top of your game and be able to do the class to its fullest, but you’re supposed to bring the people who [the class] might not be their strong suit on the journey with you. … I loved watching people who never thought that they could do it reach their goals and surpass them.”
As the summer before her senior year wound down, Atwater was ready for her last year as an undergraduate to be the best year of her college experience. In the fall, she started training for a Spartan Race — a notoriously difficult terrain obstacle race — in Dallas, Texas that she was preparing to run with her then-boyfriend, now fiance, Thomas Pulisic ’16.
A week before the race, she woke up with abdominal pain that she thought was due to food poisoning. This pain would mark the start of the medical process Atwater said has been one of the biggest parts of her time at the College and something that has shaped her more than anything else.
“I was maddest because I missed a day of training and I kept texting my mom and boyfriend ‘I have to go to the gym, I have to run the race,’’’ Atwater said. “I kept on getting worse and worse and my mom came down to take me to the emergency room. They did all sorts of scans and found a ton of inflammation in my large intestine. It is Wednesday, I am supposed to be on a plane Thursday morning and I am getting admitted to the hospital to have a colonoscopy at Sentara.”
After that colonoscopy, they diagnosed her with Crohn’s disease and started prescribing steroids and anti-inflammatories. However, she kept getting worse and ended up spending 13 days in the hospital. Eventually, they took away the first diagnosis and one doctor said it could be runner’s colitis. These early diagnoses brought no relief, and Atwater went home the week before Thanksgiving, receiving incompletes in all of her fall courses.
As her condition was still getting worse, and at one point was unable to eat anything but Jell-O, she visited Virginia Commonwealth University’s hospital to see a gastroenterologist, who, after running tests, found 5.5 feet of stool sitting in her colon. Just a few days before graduation, she sat in his office again as he told her that she needed surgery.
“At this point I am finishing taking 29 credits because I was stupid enough to say I still wanted to graduate on time, so I finished the five courses I was taking in the fall, the four courses I was taking in the spring, wrote 45 pages of original research the last week of college,” Atwater said. “I didn’t ring the Wren Bell, I didn’t go to Blowout, that big monumental senior year I was so desperate to have I never got. I lost friends because I couldn’t eat anything and they didn’t understand what was going on. I was up in Richmond for diagnostic testing the Thursday before I graduated and they scheduled me for surgery consultation. I walked across the stage at 2 p.m. on a Sunday graduating summa cum laude and 23 hours later I sat in my surgeon’s office and learned I needed an ileostomy.”
An ileostomy is a procedure where a small opening in the abdominal wall is made, and the end of the lowest part of the small intestine, the ileum, is brought through the opening to form a stoma. Then, waste comes out of the stoma and into a bag worn on the stomach.
“I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, finding out I needed life-altering surgery that would probably be the beginning of several surgeries to deal with this problem,” Atwater said. “I ended up having surgery in June, and I woke up from my surgery with my ileostomy, Olly. Olly and I are buds. There is massive stigma out there about ostomies that you can’t wear cute clothes, that you are going to smell bad all the time, that only old people have them. It’s poop, no one wants to deal with that all the time. But I took a look down and there was Olly and we were in this together and we were going to make the best out of anything that came our way.”
After her surgery, Atwater said she felt called to change the conversation about ostomies, so she made an Instagram account, @MollyOllyOstomy, to share her experiences after the initial procedure. Since then, she’s been diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, a condition that affects blood flow, as well as another condition that means her body can’t regulate the collagen — such as that in her colon. For her, these diagnoses explained the symptoms leading to her ileostomy procedure and all of the ones she has dealt with since then.
“If William and Mary taught me one thing, it’s that you don’t stay silent,” Atwater said. “If there is no voice, then you become the voice.”
Atwater talks about these diagnoses and her daily life on her Instagram, which she started as something for herself but has since gained over 7,000 followers. Atwater said she uses this account to show that young people have ostomies and to fight the stigma against ostomy patients.
“I get messages and comments from people all over the world, all ages, 12 year olds, 80 year olds, just sharing how my experiences have impacted them and given them a more positive outlook on life,” Atwater said. “I have always tried to take my experiences and not let them weigh me down. I have awful, awful moments and I never let myself wallow in self-pity for more than 24 hours. Then, you pick yourself back up and keep on trucking and finding what you can do instead of what you can’t, and that’s pretty much what’s led me to this point. I am a strong believer that life doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle, and I must have shown that I can handle a lot because this is something that would definitely break other people, but I am fortunate to have the willpower and the support system in place to tackle almost everything.”