By Linda T. Kennedy
Less than a year ago, before Marie Lyon Fitzgerald received her master’s degree at WGU’s 2017 Summer Commencement in Salt Lake City, Utah, she woke one morning to experience blood streaming from her nose and down her throat.
She lost a third of her blood that morning, before riding AirMed from her Logan, Utah home to the University of Utah Hospital for a life-saving surgery. Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension had caused cranial cerebral spinal fluid to leak from her brain. From a drastically understated perspective, that alone might have interrupted her efforts towards earning a master degree.
That’s especially considering that nine months prior to that, Fitzgerald got so sick she couldn’t keep any food down, either.
“That’s when I first got sick with Gastroparesis,” she says. “I was just so sick that I started throwing up everything and had to be fed through a tube.”
After losing 45 pounds and having the stomach issues barely under control, she went through three brain surgeries and diagnostic treatments at the Mayo Clinic. Her severe health issues were a mystery for her and her family, considering that Fitzgerald had no prior serious health issues.
Regardless, Fitzgerald kept working towards her degree.
"I definitely felt like giving up on my degree several times," says Fitzgerald.
So, how does someone in this condition push through school anyway? Fitzgerald says it had always been a personal goal to earn her degree. But after her divorce, just a year prior to her health challenges, it became as necessary to her survival as regaining her health.
“I have this obligation to provide for myself, my insurance and rent and food,” she says. “So it seemed better to me to push through than lay in bed and feel sorry for myself.”
Fitzgerald’s personal WGU program mentor, Samantha Spears, became a constant advocate towards her success.
“Marie went through so much during the course of her program, but I was always impressed with her positivity and determination to succeed,” recalls Spears. “Never once did she say, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’
Spears set up small goals for Fitzgerald so she could progress at a manageable pace. She called Fitzgerald every week, and sent emails reminders.
“She’d say 'just try to do this much this week,'” recalls Fitzgerald. Spears also helped her design a course of action so she only needed to complete one or two classes a term.
“I was so proud to submit her graduation recommendation, happy that I got to be a part of her support system, and really pleased to see her succeed on both the personal and academic levels,” says Spears.
With her degree in hand, Fitzgerald is focused on her recovery so that she can return to teaching next year. While it wasn’t her original game plan to earn her degree but put a hold on using it, she’s tooled for new opportunities when her health improves. In the meantime, she tries to keep her focus on “something joyful each day,” such as when she enjoys time with family and FaceTime with her nieces and nephews.
“The sun comes up every day so each day you need to decide what you are going to do with that day,” says Fitzgerald. “I would tell other WGU students with health challenges to have courage. That’s because life isn’t easy for anyone but you can get through it and it’s worth it.”