Sarah Nelson: One Incredible Journey

Every year our department says “goodbye” to another group of graduating SLP and AuD students. Every year, among those 30-40 graduates who have been prepared by our training programs to diagnose and treat speech, language, and hearing concerns of children and adults, compelling stories emerge of personal triumph in the face of serious obstacles to completing a clinical graduate degree. This year, Sarah Nelson (BS ’12; MS ’14) stands out for completing her graduate training while confronting a serious challenge: brain cancer. Her experience reflects not only her own courage and focus, but also the dedication and compassion of the SLP community surrounding her.

Sarah earned a UW-Madison undergraduate degree in Communication Disorders and Sciences, and was admitted to our graduate SLP program in the Spring of 2012. Several weeks before our late August, 2012, orientation for incoming graduate students, Sarah was diagnosed with a brain tumor which required surgical removal. On biopsy the tumor was identified as a Grade III astrocytoma, typically not responsive to post-surgical treatment. Less than two weeks before classes began in early September, Sarah had surgery to remove the tumor. The news then got better: the tumor was of a genetic type that had been responsive to radiation and chemotherapy in other patients. Now Sarah had a decision: to delay her graduate training while she was treated for this disease, or to undertake both treatment of the tumor and graduate-level training. She chose the latter.

Sarah, pictured second from left, on her recent hiking trip

Sarah, pictured second from left, on her recent hiking trip

Although the semester following the surgery was very difficult with the exhaustion from combined radiation and chemotherapy, plus the academic and clinical obligations of the program, Sarah completed her work, (though she had to reduce her clinical load). Sarah notes that her practicum classmates, “…stepped in to cover for me and did all the work that I had to miss on top of their work for their own clients.” During Spring semester, when Sarah was receiving chemotherapy, she missed less practicum time but still, when she did, her classmates were there for her, supporting her, encouraging her, making her feel like a member of a family with a common goal.

“I am very grateful that I was able to be in such a rich and warm environment while I was sick,” Sarah says. “I think that being part of an academic community is what kept me from dwelling on my illness and becoming depressed or overly anxious. Throughout the year, I tried to hold myself to the same standards that my classmates were being held to, which kept me trying hard and working to find the energy to be as present as possible in class and clinic, no matter how I felt.”

Sarah graduated on time with her wonderful classmates, and is currently doing a Clinical Fellowship at the University of California-Davis MIND Institute. Sarah’s work combines clinical and research duties on a project which teaches moms of children with Fragile-X syndrome strategies to help their children learn language.

Sarah and her father

Pictured are Sarah, with her father, at our May 2014 Graduation Day

The best news is that in 2013 Sarah finished her treatments and her subsequent MRI scans have been clear. This past June she did a Lake Superior backpacking trip with her boyfriend, and later in the month participated in a climbing trip for cancer patients and cancer survivors in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. In her job at the MIND Institute she is making a major contribution to the field.

We congratulate Sarah on her success, and believe she made the right choice to begin her graduate education with this great group of graduate students.