Graduate school lessons
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
As I reflect on the last three years I worked towards my master's in public health, I cannot believe how my life path completely changed in that amount of time. I always had this goal to go back to school by the time I was 30 years old. Well, I turned 30 in December 2015, traveled to Hawaii to celebrate, and by the middle of January, 2016, I was on campus starting school as an executive public health administration and policy student. This is a unique program allowing working professionals to return to school, while maintaining full-time employment.
I have been lucky to be employed my entire adult life, and I had worked my way up in a career of alcohol and drug counseling for nearly seven years by the time I entered graduate school. I knew the time was right because I made it to the top of the typical pay range, I secured the highest licensure and certification in my state, and I was being asked to mentor and supervise people coming into the field. I had exhausted my upward career trajectory and I wasn't willing to stop there. More schooling was the obvious next step, but I knew I couldn't stop working in order to go because a girl has to keep paying the bills! I chose public health because it is a broad field, and my career in the hospital systems as a counselor was very applicable. Also, a lot of the men and women I looked up to career wise, had MPHs behind their names.
I remember January 2016 vividly. I went from being a carefree individual, working full-time and having free weekends, to a stressed full-time employee and full-time graduate student with absolutely no free time. Thankfully, January in Minnesota is dark and cold, because I'm not sure I went outside at all except to go to and from work. I was thrown back into school whether I was ready or not. I made new connections with colleagues, fellow students, and professors. This was nothing like undergrad. I was treated like a peer, and it felt good. My first semester I received a 4.0 GPA, and I knew I was on the right track.
Fast forward to December 2018. I had maintained my stellar GPA, and had applied and was accepted into a global public health and leadership program in India which I planned to use as my master's field experience. I was applying for a student visa, attending appointments at the travel medicine department to update vaccinations and receive preventative medications in case of malaria and/or travel diarrhea. I left my husband and furkids at home the day after Christmas and traveled 26 hours to Mysore, India. I was there for over 3 weeks. I can honestly say, it was an amazing and eye opening experience. I gained new friendships, tried new things, traveled all over southern India, ate the most amazing food, learned about Indian healthcare and public health systems, attended school in a foreign country, and learned what it felt like to be disconnected due to very limited WiFi and no phone service despite purchasing an international plan.
I came home on a high. Probably partly due to extreme jet lag, but also from experiencing a once in a lifetime cultural experience. I returned to school and work almost immediately upon my return home because I had taken unpaid time from work, and the January term was over. Just as the haze was starting to lift and I felt I was getting back to reality, I woke up one night to a sharp stinging pain in my left breast.
I literally sat straight up in bed from a sound sleep. I knew this was odd, and I immediately felt a hard lump where the pain had originated that wasn't there when I had last checked. I was about to get my period, so I told myself, if it doesn't go away after that, I will call about it. A couple of weeks later, it had not gone away, and it was causing so much pain in my breast that it was bruised and I could no longer sleep on my stomach. I called my doctor right away.
This was the moment I realized, I had yet to transfer my medical records from my old hospital system to my new one. Due to a job change, and a new house purchase in a different city, I had new insurance and switched clinics for coverage and convenience factors. I couldn't get an appointment at the new breast health center until I had my previous imaging and records sent over. This turned out to be a much bigger hassle than I imagined. What I was learning about the disjointed and broken U.S. healthcare system in school, was reiterated through my personal experiences. I printed the release of information, faxed it to my previous hospital, and called to confirm it had been received. I also inquired as to when I should expect the records to be sent. They said, "10-14 business days." WHAT?! I burst into tears after I had been transferred to a supervisor in the medical records department. I laid it all out for her stating I had a lump in my breast and needed to get in right away, but that I couldn't do that without the records. I must have known deep down it was bad, because I am usually quite calm and collected in stressful situations. The supervisor must have felt sorry for me because she let me in on a little secret. She told me if I came to the medical records department in person and waited there while they processed my request, they would send the records over immediately, without the normal 10-14 day queuing period. I packed my stuff and told my boss I had to leave work with little information as to why. I was on a mission to get those records transferred.
The next day I was able to make an appointment at the new breast health center because the records had been faxed. It worked! From there, things happened very quickly. I got an appointment within a couple of days. At that appointment, I had a mammogram, ultrasound, and ultrasound guided biopsy. The next day I was diagnosed with breast cancer and my life was officially taken over by medical appointments and tests. I stopped working to focus on my new career for the time being, breast cancer patient.
If you would have told me at the beginning of grad school that I wouldn't graduate on time because I would be diagnosed with breast cancer, I probably would have laughed in your face. I still can't really believe it all went down like it did. People in my program can't believe I graduated at all with what I have been going through, but in all honesty, it wasn't bravery or anything like that (people were coming up to me at graduation saying how brave and inspiring I was- it felt awkward). It was just me persisting, the way I always have, and focusing on school as a positive distraction in my upturned world. I have always liked a challenge, and never been a quitter. When you are going through something as difficult as cancer, it doesn't really feel as hard as other people think it is. I mean, don't get me wrong, it sucks and it is the hardest thing I have experienced, but in the day to day, it doesn't feel much different than working full-time and attending grad school full-time. It is just different, and scarier, with a lot more medical paperwork.
I graduated with my masters degree in public health a couple of weeks ago, only a year late, but I guess I had a good excuse. It feels good to be done with that chapter in my life. And, coincidently, I finished active cancer treatment that week as well. Things seem to have a way of working out. Looking back at the person I was at the start of my graduate school journey, and looking at me now.....I barely recognize myself! But, I believe I am better for it.