Source: Melanie Lee, godisalv@k-state.edu
Hometown interest: Leavenworth
News release prepared by: Stephanie Jacques, 785-532-0101, sjacques@ksu.edu

Friday, Dec. 23, 2011

Conquering adversity: Battle with life-threatening illness helps student from Leavenworth find career path

MANHATTAN -- Like most college students, Melanie Lee, a Kansas State University senior in pre-nursing from Leavenworth, went into her college career with one major, but will graduate with a different one. However, unlike other students, her decision to change majors was due to a life-altering event.

At the age of 19, Lee suffered a hemorrhagic stroke due to a variety of congenital birth defects in her brain. She lost her ability to walk, recall certain words and part of her eyesight. As she lay in a hospital bed listening to her doctor's prognosis, she experienced one of those moments that changes one's life.

"I was crying, my parents were crying and my nurse just came in. She didn't say anything. She just knelt down next to my bed and held my hand for a while," Lee said. "She didn't have to say anything; she was just there."

Lee hasn't had just one amazing nurse throughout her ordeal; she has had several who have helped her both physically and mentally overcome the challenges that accompany a stroke, like learning how to walk again.

The nurses with whom Lee interacted with during that difficult time in her life made her realize that she wanted to do what they were doing -- to be that person for other people.

"I had some really great nurses who just made some of the most difficult times so much better with their encouragement," Lee said. "I want to be that for people. I want to provide a different type of nursing -- not just have a great knowledge of the medical field, but be that person who is going to be there for patients."

The stroke gave Lee not only the desire to help others but a natural curiosity about the human body, particularly the brain. Now in her senior year at Kansas State University and holding a 3.9 GPA, she is enrolled in Structure and Function of the Human Body, an anatomy and physiology course in the university's Division of Biology. Although Lee describes the class as one of the most challenging of her college career, it is her favorite class.

"I love human body class," she said. "Every day I come home from class and my roommates always laugh because I have a bit of trivia to share; or they'll say something about their body, and I'll be able to immediately chime in and say, ‘Oh that's not actually correct. The human body doesn't function that way. That's just a myth.'"

At eight credit hours, the course is challenging and time-consuming. Students are required to be in class 15 hours a week, and to keep up with the rigorous demands of the course, they are encouraged to study an additional 25-30 hours a week.

Part of the Division of Biology curriculum, the course has an average enrollment of 160 each semester. Even though it is not required for many majors, enrollment is very competitive because students have heard that they will learn a lot, said Dana Townsend, course instructor.

Students, like Lee, who have been chosen to participate in the optional cadaver dissection team, have an average of five to eight hours a week of addition workload; however, Lee knows that the benefits outweigh the costs.

"I know when I go to nursing school that I've spent hours looking at bodies rather than just pictures," Lee said. "Going into it I knew it was going to be really hard and that it might affect my GPA, but the knowledge that I would gain would be well worth it."

Students on the dissection teams are required to learn about systems in the human body two weeks earlier and more in depth than the regular lab so that they can help teach the other students in the class. Despite the added challenge, being part of the dissection team has really appealed to Lee.

"One of my favorite parts is when we do clinicals," Lee said "We are given all the symptoms of a patient, and based on what we know from looking at the cadavers we have to figure out what is going on. One of the clinicals had to do with a blood clot. Even though I didn't have a blood clot stroke, I have learned a lot about it, so I was really excited because I knew what was going on."

Lee has to get a MRI every six months, so she has several MRI scans of her brain on her computer. She keeps them because she finds them interesting. But the human body class has helped her develop an interest in the heart. As both brain and heart ailments are commonly dealt with in hospital intensive care units, that's where Lee wants to spend her time as a nurse.

"I want to be an ICU nurse because you get to really make a connection with the patients, Lee said. "I really want that time to build a relationship with them, even if it is only a relationship that needs to last for 12 hours."

In the two years since her stroke, Lee has regained her ability to walk, recall words and the full use of her eyes. She still has frequent severe headaches, and there is the possibility that she could have another stroke; however her determination is stronger now than ever. Lee has continued with her schoolwork and has never received less than a B in any of her classes.

"I don't think there is much that could come my way that I couldn't get through," Lee said. "While sick, I spent each day focusing on how I could benefit from the lessons learned that day. Now I realize how much I accomplished and how much further I can go."

Lee gives credit to her faith, family and friends for supporting her though the most difficult times. Shed hopes to attend the University of Kansas School of Medicine next fall.