Tracy Fejeran lost her sense of sight in 2006, spent five years on dialysis and received a kidney transplant in 2014.
She had a heart attack in 2015, her first year as a student at Spokane Falls Community College. And in 2016, she underwent a double bypass surgery and later caught pneumonia because the kidney transplant had weakened her immune system.
Fejeran’s myriad health problems have interrupted her school work many times – but never for long. The 47-year-old is now a junior at Eastern Washington University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in disability studies.
“I didn’t want to drop my classes,” she said in an interview last week. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Just stop. You don’t have to go to school.’ But I had gotten so far already, I didn’t want to give up.”
That perseverance recently earned Fejeran the Transforming Lives Award from the Washington State Association of College Trustees, which celebrates “current or former students whose lives have been transformed by pursuing higher education at a community or technical college.”
The award, which includes a $500 scholarship, goes to just five students each year. A ceremony was held Tuesday in Olympia.
“Ms. Fejeran could have given up many times, but she continues to be a shining example of what someone can accomplish with motivation and the right support system,” Beth Thew, chairwoman of the Community Colleges of Spokane board of trustees, said in a news release.
Fejeran grew up in Guam and was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 18. In 2006, she was in a hospital there, recovering from an unrelated surgery, when she noticed her vision becoming blurry. She had been trying to read a book but couldn’t make out the words.
Doctors in Guam knew she was going blind due to complications of diabetes, but it took a specialist from California to operate on her eyes, Fejeran said.
The relief didn’t last. Within months, she said, her world went dark.
“I have no light perception, at all, in both eyes,” she said. “I can’t tell whether the sun is out, or the light is on, or what.”
Fejeran moved to Spokane in 2012 to be near family. She lives in north Spokane with her husband of 20 years, who lovingly calls her a “warrior woman,” and together they are raising two young grandchildren.
Fejeran said her kidney transplant was “a new lease on life” and what motivated her to go back to school. She got word about a possible donor on Valentine’s Day that year and went in for the operation at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center on Feb. 15. In Guam, though, it already was Feb. 16 – her birthday.
Fejeran enrolled at SFCC that fall with plans of becoming a social worker, but later decided to become an advocate for people with disabilities. She already handles public relations for some local groups, including a nonprofit called Sports 4 the Blind.
She has worked largely from home, with the help of a digital screen reader and other technology, and attributes much of her success to caring instructors and staff from SFCC’s Disability Support Services.
Fejeran said she takes each challenge with a smile. She joked that she’s been to Sacred Heart so many times, the hospital should have a special gown just for her. And when fellow students offer her help, she tells them she’s looking for her car.
She said she wants others with disabilities to know there are often solutions and people willing to help.
“Don’t think that you can’t reach for your goals,” she said. “Look for the schools that you want to go to, know what you want, and understand what it’s going to take to get there. And most of all, advocate for yourself. You need to speak up because nobody knows what you need unless you say something.”
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