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A doctoral degree, 19 years in the making

Patti O'Donnell with her service dog, Raven.

Demonstrating the power of perseverance, Patti O’Donnell graduated last week after 19 years with a doctorate in education from Lehigh University.

Usually, a student is given six years to complete a doctoral program. But O’Donnell was a special circumstance.

In 1992, at age 29, O’Donnell was a vibrant young woman with a passion for life. Athletic and intelligent, she was teaching science education at Kutztown University and coaching womens' cross-country and track at Lehigh. But suddenly, at a track practice, she was struck in the temple by a lacrosse ball estimated to be traveling at 90 mph.

She was rushed to the emergency room of a local hospital. Many of her teeth were knocked loose. Her nose was broken. What wasn’t diagnosed were skull fractures and a closed brain injury that would gradually rob her of life as she had known it.

She received severe, traumatic brain injury and a diagnosis of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (or Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy), a chronic neurological syndrome that makes even wearing clothes a painful ordeal. She suffered from depression and nightmares. She began to forget things, ultimately having to quit teaching.

Despite 19 years of mental and physical suffering and ongoing physical therapy, O’Donnell persevered, culminating with receiving her doctorate in education at Lehigh’s Commencement ceremonies in May.

O’Donnell’s struggles with her disability are inspiring for a number of reasons. For one, she is a former college track star (who helped Villanova win an NCAA Championship in 1982 in the 4x800 relay) and Lehigh cross-country coach (she won Lehigh’s first Patriot League Championship ever and was named Coach of the Year).

But perhaps more importantly, her condition has made her an even more effective teacher. She now speaks regularly to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as members of the community, on dealing with students and colleagues who are challenged by disability. Key to her lessons is dealing with people who have neurological impairment, an “invisible disability” as she puts it.

O’Donnell is helped in her daily routine by her service dog Raven, always present by her side—even at graduation.

For more on this remarkable story, read: Her longest race.

Story by Jordan Reese

Posted on Thursday, June 02, 2011

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