VANCOUVER, Wash. – A lot of people helped Christina Gay move forward in life.
Now it’s her turn. Recently, she was helping a patient take his first steps down a hospital hallway following surgery.
It’s a situation Gay has seen from both sides, first as a cancer patient and now as a nurse.
“To understand what it’s like to be in that bed and not know what’s going on: It helps me when I explain something,” Gay said. “I have a little more empathy.”
Gay was part of a program that began in 1995 to help children attending four Vancouver elementary schools. Gay and about 75 classmates at Hough Elementary were tapped in 1997.
“I was a fourth-grader at Hough,” said Gay, who was Christina Jensen back then. “I do remember the ceremony when they got us all together in the gym. They had this big announcement: All of us would be getting college paid for.
“I didn’t really know what it meant. My classmates didn’t either. All our parents were crying,” Gay said.
The program – I Have a Dream of Southwest Washington – was designed to help more than 300 kids in four low-income neighborhoods graduate from high school and then move on to higher education or career training. For Gay, that meant studying nursing at Clark College and then earning her bachelor’s degree at Washington State University Vancouver. She now is a nurse at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.
“I take care of people after they’ve had surgery,” the 31-year-old Battle Ground resident said.
When the four projects were rolled out every two years between 1995 and 2001, scholarship money seemed to be the most significant part of the pitch. As Gay recalled, that promise is what brought tears to the eyes of the parents of those fourth-graders: “They knew it was a super big deal.”
As it turned out, personal relationships were even more important. Program staff members, sponsors and volunteers provided day-to-day mentoring, encouragement, enrichment opportunities and a lot of crisis management.
They also helped the children set goals.
“If it weren’t for I Have a Dream, I don’t know that I would have realized how important education is,” Gay said. “They started us thinking about ‘following our dreams’ from a very young age and I think that makes a huge difference in your mind-set growing up.”
Many of the students in the program had more than their fair share of personal challenges. The first project at Washington Elementary had about 65 kids, and 25 of them were homeless at some point before graduating from high school.
Gay had a health challenge. She lost her lower right leg to cancer. She started having problems with her leg the summer before her senior year of high school.
“It was swollen and painful,” she said. After X-rays were taken, “They told me I had a fracture, but there was nothing that I did to cause one.”
The next step, an MRI, provided the answer: She had a tumor.
“They did chemo for five months to try to shrink it. The first surgery was a bone transplant. The donor bone was from a girl about my age who had died. It never healed.
“There was a cascade of surgeries after that – seven or eight surgeries in three years; screws, rods, it never healed,” she said.
During all those hospital stays, the local I Have a Dream sponsors kept her spirits up.
“Susan Gilbert was a huge source of support. Carolyn Propstra wrote me many cards while I was in Seattle, encouraging me. Nancy Lematta was involved in emotional support, and Candace Young.
“Of course, Paul Schroeder, the project coordinator: He was kind of like a second dad.”
While they provided valuable emotional support, Gay’s physical problems continued.
“I was constantly on crutches, in pain.”
There was another option.
“They gave me the choice of doing the amputation. They wanted to let me decide. It was the most viable option, the best chance to get back on my feet.
“I felt comfortable” with the decision,” she said. “At that point, I was having all the surgeries and nothing was working.
“Once they had mentioned amputation, I found a support group, and I could learn from an amputee what it was like.”
They included the late Dale Bowlin, an Army veteran who lost a leg in Germany during World War II.
“Dale was one of the first people I met,” Gay said. “He thought it was amazing that I sought out a support group before it happened.”
Gay was in the nursing program at Clark College at that point, and was not about to change her plans.
“When I had set my thoughts on becoming a nurse, I was destined and determined to do it,” she said. “Even if cancer had gotten in my way, I was going to work through and around it and still come out at the top with a college degree that would eventually lead me to a job I absolutely love.
“I feel like this is what I Have A Dream has instilled in me: You can do anything you dream!”
She graduated from Clark College in 2012 and then moved on to WSU Vancouver. Gay is approaching her four-year work anniversary at Legacy Salmon Creek.
In addition to day-to-day nursing care, Gay has found another way to help a particular category of patients, those who share her own medical history.
“We have people who have parts of their bodies amputated, or a patient who is in for something else has a prosthetic leg. If they seem open, I share that with them,” she said.
“One patient I can remember just had a below-the-knee amputation from diabetes. His daughter was there. He was very quiet and stoic. I was taking care of him that night.”
Gay said she lifted her pant leg and showed them her own prosthetic leg.
“They started crying. His daughter gave me a hug. I felt I helped someone in a way other than nursing.”
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