A miracle graduate

Area woman earns degree through never-give-up attitude, medical challenges

PROUD MOMENT — Katie Brown of Wintersville, above, and below with her mother, Mickie Brown, graduated May 19 from Eastern Gateway Community College with a degree in early childhood education. Brown started her college studies in 2005 but medical issues interrupted her education for 10 years before she was able to return to the classroom in 2015. Brown has had three surgeries related to her condition, neurofibromatosis, the most recent in 2005 that left her paralyzed from the chest down. “She was not supposed to be able to walk again. They told her she would never walk again,” her mother said. But Katie persevered, embraced therapy and beat the odds to walk again, return to her studies and now pursue a job working with children. -- Janice Kiaski

WINTERSVILLE — Katie Brown is having her graduation party today.

And while such festivities this time of year aren’t uncommon for those completing some level of education, the circumstances surrounding the 31-year-old Wintersville woman’s achievements and celebration are.

The daughter of Terry and Mickie Brown graduated from Eastern Gateway Community College on May 19 with a degree in early childhood education, thanks to quiet resolve, family support, faith in God and a never-give-up attitude.

After graduating from high school in 2005, the former Richmond resident began her studies at the then Jefferson Community College as an 18-year-old, but her medical condition — neurofibromatosis — would interrupt that pursuit.

The genetic disorder causes tumors to form on nerve tissue and can develop anywhere in the nervous system, including the spinal cord.

A layman’s definition offered by her mother is that “fibrous tumors are all entwined among her nerves throughout her body. They are entwined around her nerves, and they can’t take them out without her losing all her nerves, so they only do the surgeries when they are encroaching on something serious.”

Since she was 8, Katie has undergone three surgeries related to the condition, the most recent one occurring in 2005, not long after she’d begun her college studies.

“She went the first semester, then she developed a tumor or she had tumors against her spinal canal,” Katie’s mother explained. “She had to have surgery before she finished the semester. The doctor put her in the hospital in November of 2005, and she came out of that paralyzed from the chest down.

“She was not supposed to be able to walk again. They told her she would never walk again,” Mickie said.

But they were wrong.

Despite paralysis and what would have seemed a life confined to a power wheelchair and use of a Hoyer lift, for example, to be moved from her wheelchair to her bed, Katie said she refused to believe there was a 95 percent chance of never being able to be upright and mobile.

“She wouldn’t accept that,” said Mickie, seated next to her quiet daughter who smiles as the story unfolds.

Therapy ensued for three years after that, occupational and physical.

After her surgery, Katie had therapy for several months at the Children’s Institute, where she learned to use adaptive equipment, including a stander to help prevent muscle atrophy.

At home, Mickie worked with Katie, fueled by her daughter’s resolve to go the distance.

“As long as she was willing to do it, we did whatever she wanted to do. She never gave up,” Mickie said.

“Every morning we had a little chart, and every morning we would do those exercises, every single day, seven days a week. I would say, ‘Do you want to take a day off,’ and she would say, ‘No, let’s not take a day off,'” Mickie said.

“She was in wheelchair a long time,” Mickie added. “Everybody calls her the miracle. Even the doctors say after a year, you get back what you’re going to get back, and then that’s about it. They give you that year, and once you have reached that goal of a year, what you have is about all you’re going to get.”

Slowly but surely, though, “everything just started to come back,” Mickie said.

How?

“Determination” comes the response. “Her mindset.”

“I think you just have to have the determination and feel you’re going to do it and just do it. It’s been a l-o-n-g road, but she never gave up on anything,” Mickie said as she looked with pride and respect at Katie.

“The whole time she was paralyzed from the shoulders down and had limited use of her hands but no coordination,” Mickie continued. “That came back first after two years of occupational therapy. They did the electric stimulation and got her hands back, and she had no trunk control, so the doctor said let’s go have some physical therapy in the hospital and try to strengthen that core control, making it easier to get in and out of the wheelchair, and that’s when the physical therapist felt just a little tinge of movement, and they took that and ran,” Mickie said.

Katie returned to school in 2015 after 10 years away from the classroom, intent on a career as a preschool teacher or an aide.

She graduated from the Jefferson County Joint Vocational School (Edison High School was her home school) in May 2005. Working with children was always her passion, beginning with babysitting in her youth and continuing at JVS where “we ran a preschool. I’ve always enjoyed working with children,” she said.

Ditto for Katie’s sisters, Mickie explained, noting daughter Jennifer Garlinger, who resides in Hopedale with her husband, Andy, is assistant manager at the Children’s Academy in Steubenville, and daughter Christina Keyser, who resides in Steubenville with her husband, Bobby, is an aide for special needs children at Wintersville Elementary.

In the midst of her supportive family, Katie realized two achievements on graduation day in not only her receiving her degree but in walking to accept it.

“It felt good,” Katie said of graduating.

For her, it brought a smile and the reminder to never give up; for her mother, it brought tears.

Katie noted EGCC was helpful in her pursuit of a degree.

“At the college I could take extra time on tests, I was allowed to tape record my lectures, and there is tutoring available to anyone,” she said.

She graduated summa cum laude with a 3.92 GPA.

“She has done very well,” Mickie said.

The front door of the Brown residence is decorated with two signs. One reads “Bloom where you are planted,” appropriate, Katie agrees, because she has blossomed in a garden of sorts despite its “weeds,” its challenges.

The other sign reads, “Faith, Hope, Love,” three elements that have contributed, she also agrees, to her success.

Katie will spend the summer relaxing a little and looking forward to putting her degree into action, hopefully initially as a substitute aide in the Indian Creek school system.

Mary Paice, who lives in Meridian Greene Apartments where the Browns also reside, suggested a story be written about Katie, whom she admires.

“I have never heard her complain about her condition,” Paice notes. “I sincerely believe that others should know of her courage, determination, respect and love for getting her degree in something she is clearly meant to do,” she adds.

“This is a new, wonderful, exciting adventure for not only Katie, but for the little lives that her love for teaching will bring to many, many children,” Paice noted.”

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

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