College often presents many challenges for students, but few have had to overcome the obstacles faced by University of Nebraska at Omaha sophomore Gabriela Lemus.
Lemus, a secondary education major with a concentration in math, was diagnosed with brain cancer in October after experiencing headaches and drooping of her right eye for several months.
An eye doctor appointment was made at her mother’s insistence.
“Right away she [the doctor] said ‘it looks like you might have a damaged optic nerve’ and that I needed an MRI and needed it that very day,” Lemus said.
Lemus and her boyfriend, Jimmy Nguyen, went to UNMC’s emergency room. A mass was found during the MRI and Lemus had to stay a week in the hospital while tests were completed.
“They finally found out that it was a tumor, and it was malicious,” Lemus said. “I was going to go home for break since it was around Thanksgiving, but instead I had to stay here in the hospital. My mom came and stayed with me.”
After break ended, Lemus had to miss school in order to receive radiation and chemotherapy treatments every day. She contacted her professors to let them know about her situation.
Lemus had to take medical incompletes in her classes, which affected her ability to live in campus housing and her financial aid.
Archive English Specialist Connie Sorensen-Birk, who was Lemus’ English composition professor, stepped in to help Lemus during this time.
“They said that I needed 12 credit hours to be a full time student and that you needed to be considered a full student in order to live in housing,” Lemus said. “I told Connie about it because I was pretty stressed … and she just told me not to worry about it and that if I couldn’t change anything, she’d talk to the people in charge.”
Fortunately, Lemus was allowed to continue staying in University Village after she sent an email explaining her medical situation.
Lemus said Sorensen-Birk helped her and her family in a variety of other ways, including visiting her in the hospital, making food for everyone and working to find a place for her family from South Sioux City to stay during the treatment process.
“She also gave me her personal phone number, which is just a really big thing for someone to do because that way I could reach her if I need help with anything,” Lemus said. “I just feel like she knows how to fix everything.”
Nguyen, who describes Sorensen-Birk as “compassionate,” is also grateful for the help Sorensen-Birk has given Lemus and her family.
“I’m grateful to Connie because out of everyone that wished Gaby better, Connie is the person who took action and did things for her and helper her out,” Nguyen said. “Anything Gaby needed, Connie was right on it. Without Connie here, we would be really lost.”
Nguyen also credits UNO’s Project Achieve program, which Sorensen-Birk works for, for helping to raise money for Lemus and her family.
“They visited her in the hospital while she was there and helped her with the incompletes, settling financial aide and making sure she wasn’t kicked out of housing,” Nguyen said. “It was Connie and Project Achieve, but the one we turned to the most was Connie.”
Nguyen said having Connie there helped lessen the stress of Gaby’s illness.
“Not a lot of people would be so open to help us because they’re busy with their own lives,” Nguyen said, “but Connie set aside her own time to help Gaby.”
Lemus is currently enrolled in 9 credit hours and is sitting in on the calculus class she had to take an incomplete in last semester.
Sorensen-Birk said having cancer has not detoured Lemus or her career goals.
“She’s such a strong, highly motivated, capable young woman that I’m not sure it made all that much difference,” Sorensen-Birk said. “Just her being who she is what’s making the difference, and of course having a friend like Jimmy who is devoted to what needs to be done to make her life better.”