Psoriasis in her teens couldn’t slow her down

| Steve Bieler
  • Name: Sheila Solomon Shotwell
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Diagnosis: Plaque psoriasis
  • Age diagnosed: 14
  • Age now: 62
  • Past treatments: Coal tar, topicals with and without occlusion, steroid injections, steroid topicals, Dovonex (calcipotriene), UVB phototherapy, diet
  • Current treatment: UVB phototherapy, diet
  • Status: “Mostly clear.”

Sheila Solomon Shotwell and her psoriasis came of age in the 1960s. She wanted to concentrate on eighth grade, new friends, cute boys and Simon & Garfunkel. Her psoriasis had other ideas.

“I had my first flare when I was 13 after I banged my shin on the bleachers at a football game,” Shotwell said. “I was diagnosed when I was 14. By then, I was almost completely covered. The doctor who diagnosed me sent me straight to the hospital.”

There, Shotwell was slathered in that old psoriasis standby: coal tar. As the 1960s became the 1970s, her doctors also tried topical steroids. She was sometimes covered with steroids, wrapped in plastic and put into her pajamas, a technique called occlusion.

Coping with sticky tar, topicals and occlusion was uncomfortable, but one doctor upped the ante when he injected steroids into her plaques using a needle gun. “I still have the scars,” she said.

It was at this time that she started experimenting with fad diets in an attempt to “cure” her psoriasis. A friend of her
mother’s suggested eating turkey slices every day would make her disease go away, so Shotwell added turkey slices to her diet. That lasted six months. Her psoriasis didn’t go away.

Genetic double-whammy

Both of Shotwell’s parents had psoriasis, so it was perhaps inevitable that she’d inherit the “family disease,” though her older sister escaped it. “I probably had some form of psoriasis as a little kid,” she said. “I had stuff on my scalp. And one finger was bad for a long time. It [would] split and bleed.”

In the early ’70s, Shotwell’s mother took her to a clinic for ultraviolet B (UVB) phototherapy. “It wasn’t effective,” she said, “but I wasn’t really committed. Also, we had no health insurance, and we couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket.”

Shotwell spent the next 30 years applying topicals to her skin, including “super steroids” and Dovonex (calcipotriene). She also went back to experimenting with what she ate. “I’ve tried gluten-free, a heavy-duty regimen of lecithin and vegetarian.”

In 2003, she decided to give UVB phototherapy a second chance. “The place I went for light treatments in the 1970s is the same doctor I go to now,” she said. “Today, it’s an entire clinic just for light treatments.”

She goes for her phototherapy weekly and is happy with the results, describing herself as “mostly clear.” She believes phototherapy is the cause of her clearer skin because she still has psoriasis on her scalp and in her ears, “where the light does not reach.”

Following her passions

Shotwell is married, with three grown children and five grandchildren, and worked in education for 25 years. Acting had always been one of her passions, and in 1990, she embarked on another career in improvisational theater, where
you create everything in the moment.

Shotwell’s adolescence, which was complicated by coal tar, turkey slices and power tools, gave her a skewed perspective on the world that helped her years later with her acting. She teaches improv in schools and for nonprofits, mostly for at-risk kids, noting that her favorite age group is middle-schoolers. She donated her time to give an improv workshop at the 2013 National Volunteer Conference in Chicago, where she taught children with psoriatic disease new ways to express themselves. 

“Psoriasis is not my life,” she said. “This is a life with psoriasis in it.”


Driving Discovery, Creating Community

This year, we’re celebrating 50 years of driving efforts to cure psoriatic disease and improve the lives of those affected. See how far we’ve come with this timeline of NPF’s history. But there’s still plenty to do, and we can’t do it without you! Learn how you can help our advocacy team shape the laws and policies that affect people with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis – in your state and across the country. Help us raise funding to promote research into better treatments and a cure by joining Team NPF, where you can walk, run, cycle, play bingo or even create your own DIY event. Contact our Patient Navigation Center for free, personalized support for living a healthier life with psoriatic disease. And keep the National Psoriasis Foundation going strong by making a donation today! Together, we will find a cure.

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