This week I had the opportunity to speak to the Academy students at Lycoming College about perseverance. Perseverance is an easy topic for me to discuss. I had a personal battle with it. Here is what I shared with the Lycoming Academy students:

 

I am going to share a personal story with you about perseverance. In November of 2013, I was on a field trip with students. We were on a bus, and I was experiencing some serious vertigo. I tried to get through the day as best as I could, but by 3pm, I was in no shape to be supervising students. If anything, they should have been supervising me. By the time I got home around 4pm, I was so dizzy and confused that I crawled from my car door to my house and was unable to see the door enough to open it with my key. It took me nearly ten minutes, but I finally jostled the door open. I spent the next 30 plus minutes attempting to call my now husband who describes my call for help as someone who was seemingly confused as I did not know what day it was, what time it was or where I was. Obviously he took me to the hospital.

While in the emergency room, I was given a cat scan. No one came back to speak to me for hours after the scan. Finally, someone returned with a piece of paper and a shot full of anti-anxiety medication. He said that I had a lesion on my brain, and that I needed to go home and call a neurologist first thing tomorrow morning… oh, and I should take off from work. He even suggested I should take a week or more off. I went to work the next day and tried to get my mind off of it despite doctor’s orders.

Within a week, I had a diagnosis. I had a tumor the size of a strawberry growing on some of the nerves in my brain. I was told to go see a specialist in Pittsburgh or at Johns Hopkins in Maryland. I went to both. Each person I saw told me I would likely go deaf in my right ear, may never gain my balance again and that I would likely lose the use of my face on the right side. They actually said, I may never fully smile again. None of this was good news and, quite frankly, at only 29 years old, it was scary. I spent the next several weeks looking in the mirror and just smiling, so when I couldn’t smile anymore, I would remember what I looked like when I could.

Following the trips to see neurosurgery specialists, I was told to start thinking about short term disability insurance, and possibly taking extended time off for surgery and/or radiation. There was a problem with this; however. I had to work. I had to work because it was the thing that gave me drive. I had to work because it gave me something else to think about. I had to work because if I taught all year long then summer would come and if summer came then I could travel, which is my dear passion, and if I could travel I could challenge myself and if I could challenge myself I could be happy and if I could be happy, I could still smile… but if I couldn’t work, then none of it would play out like that… so when I heard that my life might be altered… instead of crawling in a hole… I persevered. I set a goal for myself: find the least invasive procedure, have it done as quickly as possible, miss the fewest days of work, and… probably because I am a little crazy… hike Macchu Picchu. I know that sounds crazy, but that is what would make me feel like I persevered. Oh… and to smile… to smile every single day, just in case there was a day that I couldn’t.

 

In January of 2014, I had brain radiation. It was pretty terrible. I had a cage screwed to my face and battled months of vertigo and nausea, but I went to work, and I persevered.. and I even smiled the day the screwed that cage to my forehead. I took the kids on field trips, I still taught several subjects and even continued to hold a second job. During that same school year, I was voted to be our union vice president, and I did not even run for the position. It was also a year where we had to negotiate a contract. I could have said no, and turned it down, but I didn’t. I persevered and continued on. I wasn’t going to let this thing growing in my head win and control my opportunities. It was me versus this tumor, and I was going to win. It definitely won some small battles, but I was determined to win the war… and I was going to win while smiling.

By the time April rolled around, I was still feeling pretty terrible, but I had a contract to settle and a mountain to climb. Literally, a mountain. I was going to Peru no matter what.  In fact, I booked the tickets without even being medically cleared. By the end of April, I took the lead as chief negotiator, and anyone in this room who has worked in public education knows how hard that job is, and had the contract settled 21 days later. I had an MRI in June and was told my tumor was shrinking. I got on that plane to Peru, I hiked Macchu Picchu and I even went to India, Belize, Guatemala, Alaska and Utah all in the same summer. Why? Because I had to persevere and because I was alive and well, and that was something to celebrate! And because it made me smile.

Within six months I went from thinking I would be partially deaf, have no ability to drive a car or be independent and I would never be able to truly smile due to facial palsy for the rest of my life, to solo traveling three continents.  I felt I persevered. I didn’t beat the tumor, I just did what I had to do and then did what I wanted to do. I continued on. And every day when I look in the mirror, I smile, because I can… on both sides of my mouth.

Let me be clear, persevering wasn’t fun. It was hard, it took grit and there were times I didn’t want to, but I did. Why am I telling you this? Well, this is your first year of college, which is essentially the first year of your adult life. You are going to face many challenges. Some of them will be really exciting and some will be incredibly difficult. Do your best, take them head on, and you will persevere. Have grit in all you do, beat the odds, help others do the same… and oh, remember to smile while you are doing it. Don’t ever let anything take that away from you.