Chisasibi woman overcomes brain tumour to complete PhD studies

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Sarah PashagumskumYou would never know it to look at her now but not even a year ago Sarah Pash was so debilitated by a brain tumour that she couldn’t manage to get through her workday.

Now on the other end of her journey, the 42-year-old mother of four has just graduated from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay having completed her Doctorate in Education with a specialization in First Nations Student Success.

It all began nine years ago when Pash decided to go back to school to begin her Masters studies at Lakehead. She was living in North Bay at the time because her husband was pursuing his Bachelors degree in Education.

“I decided to pursue this out of concern for kids, for my own kids and for the kids in my family,” said Pash.

Pash had actually started out as a teacher in her home community of Chisasibi at James Bay Eeyou School where she taught various levels. But she had difficulty with the fact that there was such a “drop off” between the number of children who registered and those who graduated.

She said this prompted her to go into a doctorate program and use her time studying to see why Eeyou Istchee has so many children who leave school and find solutions to improve school success rates.

For the first few years, Pash said that her studies went really well. Then, about five years ago, she started to feel pain in her head and down her left side. She was also very fatigued.

“As the years went by it just got worse and worse and different things would set it off like loud noises, going from hot to cold temperatures, air conditioning or being in arenas. Any kind of stimulation would set off these spasms of pain but they just couldn’t figure it out at the hospital,” said Pash.

Despite taking a wide variety of pain medication, her condition began to degenerate. Though she could function in her daily life, Pash could no longer concentrate enough to pursue her studies.

She took a position as the Director of Programs at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute three years ago and moved to Chibougamau. But eight months into her new job the pain had finally become too much to bear.

Finally, a doctor sent her for an MRI, which revealed Pash had a three-centimetre tumour in her brain located between her ear and brainstem. Her only treatment option was surgery.

“We had to find a surgeon that was able to do that type of surgery because it was tricky. The tumour was right on my facial nerve muscles and my auditory nerves. They had to figure out what to do and so it took a while to plan out,” said Pash.

In September 2013, Pash finally had her surgery and while she said that the doctors were able to save all of the nerves for the muscular function of her face, she did lose the function on the auditory nerves on her left side. The upside, however, is that she finally is pain free.

Fully recovered by January of this year, Pash was back at work and decided that it was time to resume her studies. The university allowed her to re-register in the program given that her previous departure was because of illness.

With her doctoral defense completed this past March, Pash was now ready to graduate and managed to do so with honours, receiving the William A. West medal as the highest-ranked graduate student.

As for her future, that is a story yet to be written. While very happy in her current employment, she hasn’t closed the door on education.

“I would love to be able to apply everything that I have studied and so if that opportunity were open to help out, I would definitely do that,” said Pash.

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