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Christopher Ponko is a funny, charming, unassuming 27-year-old. He loves to talk. He’s passionate and determined when it comes to his goal to become a nurse. He recently lost 100 pounds from switching to a vegan diet. He also happens to be gay.
When he talks about himself, Ponko, a Patient Services Representative at Edward Hospital, leads with, “I don’t know whether my story is all that interesting.” But then he tells you that he’s sometimes mistaken for a woman on the phone. “It’s because I’m so flamboyant. My voice confuses people, I guess. It happened to me just this morning.”
He tells you that he was bullied a lot as a kid. “I got stabbed in the back once, when I was in grade school. Another kid sharpened a pencil and then stabbed me with it. I had no idea why he did it.”
He tells you that his mother is a devout Jehovah’s Witness who has never truly accepted her son’s homosexuality. “She comes from a generation that still believes being gay is a choice. I have always known that I was different.”
Christopher Ponko is many things. But he is by no means uninteresting.
Ponko grew up the youngest of four kids, with three older sisters. He says he never really had that moment where he officially came out to anyone in his family. He had learned to push his feelings away. “I was talking to my sister on the phone one day about her upcoming wedding. She told me I could bring a date — a girl or a boy. That was the first time anyone in my family acknowledged it.”
It wasn’t until he was accidentally “outed” by an acquaintance of his sister that Ponko started to become comfortable with who he was. “I was conditioned by my mom and the kids in my neighborhood that homosexuality was wrong. After that happened, I just became more open with myself.”
Ponko, a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Council at Edward-Elmhurst Health, has decided that he wants to be an advocate. “I think it’s important for me to be a voice for the LGBTQ community. There was no one on the council representing that community, and I don’t want people to just close off to these topics. We can get better understanding by talking about it. That’s how we’ll get better at relating to patients and to each other.
“The people I work with accept me. It’s sometimes other patients who are skeptical. I once had a patient say to me, ‘Oh. So, you’re fat and gay?’ I roll my eyes and go with it.”
When you get to know Ponko, it becomes apparent that he is on a journey to self-acceptance. It’s a journey in which he is clearly making progress. He recently put himself on a vegan diet after a realization that he was “eating his feelings” and has lost 100 pounds.
“I was very depressed. But I think I’m learning to be comfortable with myself.”
Ponko has also become focused on his goal to become a nurse. “I saw a video on Facebook once where there was a male nurse taking care of a little girl. He started singing songs from ’Frozen’ with her, and it was everything. At that moment, I just knew.”
Ponko feels that the work being done by the health system to do a better job with gender and identity is extremely important. “I worry that some people won’t ask the gender questions because they don’t understand how important it is. But if you truly see yourself as a man, you’re so bothered by that F for female on your admission sticker. Getting this right is important when it comes to healthcare. We should have done this sooner.”
Ponko points to a copy of the DRIVEN values he has posted at his station. “That R is supposed to stand for respect. Are we not showing that to everyone? If we can make one person feel that respected, it’s worth it.”
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