Release Date: May 11, 2012
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- On Saturday, May 12, Jacob Madonia and My Lan N. Le will cross the stage at the University at Buffalo's School of Nursing commencement to get their diplomas in the last leg of a marathon whose finish line must have seemed, at times, impossible to cross.
Both are getting bachelor's degrees in nursing, both plan to go back to school to get their Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees, both can't see themselves in any other profession and both struggled with adversity. But their stories couldn't be more different.
Madonia came to UB on a sports scholarship -- he was a discus thrower and shot putter and when you see him in person he looks like the athlete his is. To use a cliché, he is the picture of health. It's hard to believe that he had a small section of his upper right lung removed just three weeks ago.
"I was getting ready to do a summer internship with the Cleveland Browns in 2008 and had had a lump on my left foot for a while when my girlfriend noticed it and was concerned. I thought that before I go to Cleveland I should find out what this is. And, it was beginning to bother me."
Madonia had the lump partially removed by a podiatrist who then referred him to an orthopedic surgeon to see if the rest of the growth could be removed. The surgeon referred him to Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI).
It was diagnosed as a synovial sarcoma, a fairly rare malignant growth. Madonia's third toe and metatarsal bone and the second metatarsal were removed from his left foot. The RPCI doctors were able to save the big toe.
At that point, Madonia had attained a bachelor's degree in psychology and was working on a master's degree in exercise science. After undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and experiencing steroid-induced depression and blistering, painful lesions on his foot after being radiated, he was still able to complete his MS in exercise science.
However, while he was carrying out his internship in cardiac rehab, he was so inspired by the nurses at Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Niagara Falls that he decided to go back to school for nursing and entered UB's accelerated bachelor's degree program in May 2011.
Not only did Madonia complete his master's and begin nursing school during this period, he also placed second at the track and field conference championships in 2009 and also qualified for NCAA regionals that year. He went on to win the Indoor Mid-American Conference Championships in 2010.
When asked what nursing specialty he wants to work in when he graduates, he smiles and says, "pediatrics at Roswell Park."
Madonia says, "A kid can have leukemia or lymphoma, but they're a kid first. For them, the disease comes second. And it also helps that I have gone through some of what they're going through. When I'm trying to access or flush their mediports (the place where they inject chemotherapy) and it hurts, I can show them where my mediport was and that I know what they're going through. It really helps."
Madonia is trying to reach some of the more notable athletes who have graduated from UB to have them come to the pediatrics ward at RPCI.
If all of this hasn't been challenging enough, Madonia lost his father last year. He also found that his cancer had metastasized to his right lung. The surgery to remove part of the lung was less than a month ago.
Mimi Haskins, MS, RN, UB clinical instructor in nursing, says, "As an athlete, cancer did not stop him…he coaches on the track and field team and has continued to be an excellent student and athlete. This spring semester, at a routine checkup, after he discovered that he had lung metastasis -- he still couldn't be stopped. He was treated and completed his N447 nursing course work and will graduate with his class. He is truly an inspiration."
My Lan N. Le has had several forks in her road to becoming a nurse.
When Le was 10 years old, her father suffered a heart attack and died before her eyes.
At the time, she says, she felt so helpless. When her father started showing signs of respiratory distress, she remembers running to a corner of the kitchen and telling herself that everything was going to be okay.
That wasn't the case. Le recounts what happened next.
"I remember when the EMTs came and started doing CPR, even defibrillating him a couple of times, that everything they did seemed futile. Being in the waiting room of the hospital, time seemed to stand still. They called us back into an office where my brother and I stood outside the door with our uncle while our mother was inside talking to one of the staff members. I vividly remember my mom turning her head toward us and I asked her if daddy had passed. She nodded her head 'yes.'"
Le didn't think of becoming a nurse then. She says with a smile that "that would be a stretch." But the thought that maybe she could've done a better job resuscitating him has stayed with her.
When asked if she is from Western New York, Le says proudly, "born and bred!" She attended P. S. 45 International School. Her primary language was Vietnamese but she also spoke English. While she was deciding what high school to go to, another fork in the road emerged.
Le wanted to go to Hutchinson Central Technical High School or, Hutch Tech as she calls it. But Le's mother, a strong figure in her life and a licensed practical nurse, had heard the nurses at work talking about their children going to Buffalo City Honors.
Le wanted to stay with her friends and go to Hutch Tech but her mother stood firm and convinced her to go to City Honors. It was a life-altering moment because Le feels that she got a superior education and made "good" friends, friends who are still part of her life.
The choice of college and career came next. Le wanted to be a sports journalist; her mother wanted her to be able to get a job and convinced her to go to nursing school.
Le says, "I was disappointed at the time because I knew she was right. So I told her that I would pursue nursing -- just like that. I didn't want any tension between the two of us."
And she never looked back.
"After four years of being at UB nursing, I can't see myself doing anything else. Some people major in something they thought they wanted to pursue and then drop out while others like me, grow to enjoy what they initially thought would not fit them," she says.
Le goes on to say, "My mother has never steered me wrong. She's been a nurse for about 16 years and she's good at what she does. She has never been late to work nor has she called in for any reason. She is a woman of sacrifices."
Le's mother has supported her with money, food and tuition. Le says her mother has done that "just to see cross the stage on Saturday."
When asked where she sees herself in 10 years she says, "as a DNP. My mother says that as long as I am willing to learn and study, she will continue to support me."
When Le receives her New York State Registered Nurse license, her mother will present her with a "brand new car."