A life saved by college

By Kharii McMillan

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Health sciences major Sonia Carter sits in front of the small lake outside the Marple DCCC campus, having just left her art class for the day before heading to physical therapy. Photo by Kharii McMillan

A smiling Sonia Carter, 45, watches DCCC students pass by near the Burlap and Bean coffee shop on campus.

“I absolutely love college life,” Carter says. Just five months ago, she wasn’t sure if she would still be alive to take part in this community that has given her so much motivation and new found energy, she said.

Carter still recalls the day she had just finished her last final of the semester, on May 11, and remembers her excitement about how well she had done.

“As I was leaving the campus, I let out a cheer, because I knew I had passed the final with flying colors,” Carter says. She then went to her job as a certified nurse’s assistant, where things soon took a turn for the worst.

About an hour after she arrived at work, Carter couldn’t feel her leg from the knee down. Although she worked through her entire eight-hour shift, the numbness in her leg didn’t subside.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” Carter says.

Carter called her niece, Tashina, as she left work, and let her know she needed to go to the hospital.

The diagnosis was a stroke. After an MRI and a CAT-Scan, the neurologist assigned to Carter’s case informed her that she had a brain tumor, one which would require invasive surgery. The tumor was the cause of her stroke, as well as three seizures that occurred while she was at the hospital that, to this day, she does not remember.

This was not Carter’s first time requiring brain surgery. Two years earlier, she went through surgery to remove and replace a bone in the central section of her brain, something that she had hoped to never have to go through again.

Due to this prior surgery, doctors were now able to determine that the tumor had grown rapidly in the two years between operations, and removing the tumor in as short an amount of time as possible was a priority.

Furthermore, doctors determined that she only had a 3 percent chance of surviving the surgery to remove the tumor.

Not yet out of the woods after surgery, Carter has one major resolve. “I will stay in school until I either graduate, or I take my last breath,” Carter says. “Either way, I will not stop going to school.”

The importance of a higher education did not come to Carter initially. After graduating high school, she married a U.S. Navy man, choosing family over school. Twenty-three years later, they went their separate ways.

Although she had a certification as a nurse’s assistant, Carter says she still had longing to go back to school, even though the very thought of doing so as a single mother with kids put fear in her heart.

“My oldest son actually walked me through the doors [of DCCC] one day, unexpectedly,” Carter says in the coffee shop, choking back tears. “He said, ‘So mom, isn’t this where you really want to be?’”

It was.

With the help of registration advisors, guidance counselors, and financial aid advisors, Carter began her journey of college education while working two jobs, one as a CNA at Inglis House, and one as a private duty CNA working one-on-one with people in need.

Although the fulfillment of going back to school was something that motivated and excited Carter, she didn’t notice the toll the tumor was taking on her body, until it was almost too late.

“I was constantly jumping and going,” Carter says. “Whether it was school, work, or studying, I was constantly in motion, and I always had that lightheaded feeling you get when you stand up too fast.”

Now, on May 11, Carter had a decision to make.

Have the surgery, or die.

This was the choice facing Carter, one that she had to make with numerous family members in mind. “I could have chosen to not have the surgery, but be able to spend a little more time with my family,” Carter says.

On May 27, Carter’s surgeon, neurologist Dr. Aubrey Okpokue, told her family to be prepared for Carter not to be able to remember any of them after the surgery, provided she even beat the enormous odds against her to survive it.

When she awoke from the surgery, however, Carter’s sister Natasha, who was present at every appointment, said she was able to name each and every family member in the room, to the shock of even Okpokue.

The next day, Carter had another small victory, as she took her first steps, despite doctors believeing she would struggle to ever walk again.

Today, she requires a metal brace for her leg to be as active as she is determined to be throughout her day, but it does not undermine her ambition to continue her educational goals, Carter adds.

Although she was able to go home for therapy after the surgery, the difficult news was still yet to come. At her followup appointment with Okpokue in early July, Carter was told that the tumor that was removed was cancerous, and she would require radiation therapy, another blow to her dreams of returning to school.

“I told the doctors that I had to go back to school,” Carter says. “Whatever needed to be done before Aug. 28, when classes start back up, we’re going to do it.”

Against her doctors’ initial advice, Carter signed up for classes after her radiation therapy ended on Aug 4. She was informed that she would have to continue physical therapy, however, and would not be able to work until November, when she will learn if the radiation killed off the cancer cells, or did any long-term damage to her body.

Carter believes attending college expand one’s worldview, giving students a perspective that allows them to see the good in all people.

“When I look at people now, I see that we’re all the same. We all want the same things,” Carter says.

According to Carter, seeing such diverse personalities, ethnicities, and lifestyles allowed her to fall in love with the beauty of all people, and it has helped her deal with the struggle of living with cancer.

“It’s the last thing on my mind,” Carter says. “Between family, school, and worrying about providing for others, the cancer is something I don’t stop to think about throughout the day.”

Carter credits her family with keeping her spirits up and supporting her every step of the way. And they will continue to be the focal point in her continued therapy and battle with cancer until the end, she believes.

The next stop in Sonia Carter’s turbulent journey: attending classes at DCCC until Nov. 27, at which time she will learn if she has to go through more radiation therapy.

Although the most recent surgery saved Carter’s life, college is what gave it new meaning, Carter says, so she will forever be grateful for the opportunities provided by walking back through the doors of DCCC.

“College makes you more well-rounded, more openminded, and able to deal with critical points in life,” Carter says. “It really has changed my life.”

Contact Kharii McMillan at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu