24: Graduating from College

24: Graduating from College

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

Graduating from College

A dream doesn’t become a reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work.

~Colin Powell

As my sister helped slip my graduation gown over my head, I remembered when I first attended Sussex County Community College back in 1998, five years after my traumatic brain injury that started with a fall I took two days before ACL surgery. Even after five years of speech therapy three times a week, my speech was still not 100% understandable, so when I decided to sign up for English 101, I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this a big mistake?”

When my aide first pushed my wheelchair into the classroom, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to speak or not. Would I get the words in my sentences all mixed up like I usually did? I also worried that I did not have a college-level vocabulary, so I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to understand the work. I had e-mailed my professor, Gary Mielo, prior to class to explain my traumatic brain injury and my deficits, including my speech difficulties. I shared with him my doubts about my ability to succeed in college. He wrote back, saying it would be an honor to have me as a student who is fighting back from a brain injury. My love for learning and my determination helped get me through that class with a 4.0.

My professor encouraged me to take another class the following semester, so I signed up for English 102 with a different professor. This professor was much harder on me, which astonished me, since she too was in a wheelchair. I had several meetings with the director of the learning center about this professor, but nothing was resolved. I was so frustrated that I quit the class. When Professor Mielo heard about this, he e-mailed me saying that even though he wasn’t teaching that class, he would get special permission from the Dean to tutor me online. I agreed to stay in college for that class, as long as he was my professor.

With my hunger for knowledge, I thought I was soaking up facts like a sponge, but I was frustrated that by the following day I would often have no memory of what I’d learned. I spent most of my time with a tutor in the learning center; I figured if I was going to be in college and spend my time and money on that class, then I wanted an A in it. When the semester ended, I had earned that A, and again Professor Mielo talked me into taking another class, and another, then another until he finally convinced me to go for my degree. Professor Mielo became my advisor and mentor until he retired in 2011.

Fifteen years later, here I was, standing in the front of the line, ready to lead all the students into the tent for graduation. This was not in the rehearsal, so what a surprise it was for me! Dressed in my cap and gown with the honor tassel dangling from my cap and Phi Theta Kappa gold and blue cords, I realized how many people I had proven wrong.

I thought back to nineteen years before, when I woke up in the intensive care unit on a ventilator with tubing and wires attached to my body. I couldn’t move my right side or talk. I didn’t remember anything.

Back then, when people talked to me, it sounded like a cassette tape on fast-forward, all jumbled up. I spent over thirty days in a private room at the hospital with the same doctor coming in, asking me the same questions over and over, “Who is the President? What day is it? What year is it?”

One morning, I remembered the nurses were saying that Hillary was President. I did not know who Hillary was, but I scribbled down her name on my table. The doctor came in and asked me who the President was and I replied, “Hillary.” He said, “No, Hillary is not the President.” But I insisted, “Hillary.” Again, I said, “Hillary,” thinking maybe I didn’t pronounce her name correctly and he said, “No.” I was getting upset and finally started pointing towards the nurse’s station, yelling, “Them say, them say!” He went to the nurse’s station to find out why I was getting upset and pointing towards the nurses. The nurses told him that they had been kidding around earlier, saying how Hillary ran the country, not mentioning that Bill Clinton was the President. The doctor informed the nurses that if they were going to joke around, to close my door, because I was insisting that Hillary was the President of the United States.

The sound of bagpipes snapped me back to the present and I started to march slowly into the huge tent, leading the other graduates behind me. I made my way to my reserved seat at the end of the second row. I never thought I would see this day happen when I started back in 1998. Although my back was throbbing in pain and at times I thought I would be sick to my stomach from the Vicodin, I forced myself to push forward, putting one foot in front of the other without my cane or braces. This was one of the proudest moments in my life.

I am so very thankful to the many people who have been by my side, my family and friends especially. I am particularly grateful to Gary Mielo, my first college professor, the staff and therapists at Progressive Health of New Jersey, and my therapy team at Rehabilitation Specialists, where I continue my treatment today. I am indebted to everyone who gave me the confidence to continue making strides, large and small. Their support, along with my own determination, have brought me to this point.

~Donna Fitzpatrick

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners