Meet Rachelle Geilen


Name: Rachelle Geilen (soon to be Rachelle van Hedel-Geilen)

Age: 28

Occupation: High school English language and literature teacher

Location: South Limburg, The Netherlands

Skin Condition: Ichthyosis EHK

I feel like people with skin conditions often have a one-line explanation that they use to explain their skin condition to others. Tell us yours. 

Firstly, I sincerely loathe the word “disease.” When someone asks me what disease I have, I conjure up the most forced and fake smile I possibly can, and kindly correct them by saying “my skin DISORDER is called Ichthyosis.” After my correction, I generally tell the entire story in order to educate them, to let them realize that I may look different, but that I am no less than they are. I am not diseased or contagious, nor is my skin gross. By educating them about the semantics of language use in referring to my disorder, I hope to make them realize that their questions, and the nuances in the way they formulate them, can make a great difference in the manner that the question is received. (The teacher in me, sorry!)

What are you up to in life right now? 

Aside from my full-time teaching position, I am also still working on my full-time Master’s certification. I am starting my thesis within the next few weeks, and hope to be finished with the program by February of next year. 

But of course, I have a life outside of education. For fun, I have my own horse, Bella, who is nearing retirement but still loves all the attention she can get, and I train two horses for an owner who wants them prepared for the dressage sport. They are Friesians, which is a world renowned Dutch breed; all black, with massive mains and tails, and furry legs. Their names are Savero and Watze. Bella is a rescue, whom my father purchased for my 15th(golden) birthday in 2005. Never did we think she would still be able to be ridden for very long, but I have had her nearly 14 years now, she is estimated to be 27 years old, and she still likes to be taken out for rides through the fields. 

My fiancé and I both are in love with the province in which we live, and the scenery that we call home. South Limburg is literally called ‘het heveulland,’ which means hill country, and those hills and wide open fields and pastures between the villages allow for lots of activities outdoors in nature. We both sincerely love taking the horses out through the fields and hiking through the hills with my mother’s dog, Lexy.

Yes… a fiancé, which means a wedding! My better half, Nowy, and I, have been together for nearly 6 years, and we are getting married May 17th. This, of course, means lots of planning and organizing, which keeps us very busy as well.

You're super into all things equestrian (I'm envious, because I'm allergic to horses!). Tell us what you love about it. 

The horses…. Aside from my family and friends, they are a massive part of my life. I was always a typical ‘horse girl,’ but I never grew out of that phase like most girls usually do. When I was born, my father had a rocking horse made for me. He used to always comment that I had nothing but horses on my mind, but he knew very well that he was to blame for starting my love of horses by having the rocking horse made. When I was five, my parents finally put me in riding lessons. I loved horses, partly because they were non-judgmental, but also because riding was a great athletic outlet in the fresh air, teaching me how to be confident and assertive, and how to care for others aside from myself. I have always believed that horses are a mirror of the rider. Throughout my equestrian life, I have sincerely recognized this to be very true, as each horse that I have trained mirrors me in a different way, depending on my motivation and mood of that day. I feel working with horses has been a tremendous asset to my teaching practices, as a teacher’s projections of mood, emotions and motivation can strongly influence students as well. 

Being active is super important, but sometimes it can be logistically challenging when you have a skin condition. What's your philosophy on that, and how do you make sure horseback riding works for your skin? 

Before starting riding, my dermatologists and general practitioner strongly advised my parents to not let me start riding, as there was great concern for excessive rubbing, wearing rubber boots, covering my hands in gloves and my head with a helmet (my hands, head and feet were the only parts of my body that could sweat normally). There was also a concern for exposure to bacteria. 

My parents did not really care what my doctors advised. Their philosophy at the time was “if it hurts enough, she will stop on her own, so let her figure it out herself,” but all the while knowing that I would not give up that easily. My weekly Saturday morning lessons often ended in my mother putting me in the bathtub, still wearing my riding pants as I had rubbed open my legs, and my pants had fused with the sores. Regardless of the pain, my parents let me keep trying as long as I wanted. They helped by finding solutions to the rubbing problems, first by buying a small, second-hand pony saddle, which we altered by moving the stirrup buckles, minimizing friction. We also learned that simply putting pantyhose under the riding pants helped profusely to minimize rubbing, as the pants would then rub over the pantyhose instead of my skin. 

Horse riding at a young age was slightly more expensive for me than for most others, as it was pivotal for my riding pants to fit tightly, as to not allow folds to appear in the material. More folds equaled more friction. My riding pants, therefore, were bought to fit right away, and not for me to grow into, therefore not allowing me much time to wear them before outgrowing them. 

Throughout my many years as an equestrian, I have applied the solutions that we found had worked well for me as a child, and still do so today. All of my saddles have been altered the same way, my boots are made to fit, and when my skin is slightly more vulnerable, I still wear pantyhose under my riding pants. What I do find absolutely key to feeling ‘normal,’ with riding as well as functioning in my daily life, is making certain that I take the necessary care of my skin. I have tried a few different regimens, nothing medicated, but all for keeping my skin well moisturized without excessive grease, and have found what works for me. If I keep up the care, I can function just like everyone else. 

Any advice you want to share? 

“You can’t” should be a phrase forbidden from your vocabulary. I have heard these words directed at me way too often, and they have become extra driving forces to prove the speaker of them wrong. When I hear “you can’t,” I think “watch me!” Doctors told me “you can’t start horse riding.” I now ride up to three horses a day, before or after going figure skating, wall climbing, snowboarding, or after a full day of work. “You can’t become a firefighter,” were words that different people told me. “Your skin can’t deal with the heat levels.” Low and behold, due to the fact that my skin is thicker than that of most, it takes longer for heat to penetrate it, and therefore I can deal with acute heat better than a ‘normal’ person. I have not mentioned it before, but I have been offered a position as a volunteer firefighter in our county. I have held off taking it due to my Master’s, but it is still in my 10-year-plan for my future. 

My advice: you are normal! Do not let anybody, especially yourself, tell you that you cannot do something due to your skin. Yes, you may have difficulties with whatever activity you choose, but there are many solutions. Be creative in finding them. If you want to do something bad enough, you will find a way. Be proud of the solutions you find instead of accepting the excuses to not even try!

Where can we keep up with you?

Feel free to add me on Facebook. I have not yet figured out Instagram, but I do have an account. My students have told me numerous times that Facebook is for old people, and that I must have been living under a rock to not understand how it works. I have a lot to learn from them… 


Sarah Harris