Homework from the hospital bed: Double lung transplant recipient earns degree

Mary Ann Wiley finished her associate
Mary Ann Wiley finished her associate's degree after suffering from a serious illness that almost left her paralyzed.
— image credit: Kyra Low/The Mirror

Mary Ann Wiley never gives up. She never lets things get her down, and until recently, she never went to college.

In 2007, Wiley was a nursing home assistant director in a long-term care facility. The Federal Way resident had been an Licensed Practical Nurse (a "damn good LPN," she said) for most of her life, and she loved her patients. She started taking a few online classes to further her education when, while about to sit down for a "chit chat" with her boss over an upcoming vacation, her body was suddenly overcome with excruciating pain.

"I told them to call 911," Wiley said. "I thought I was having a heart attack."

It wasn't a heart attack. It was the simultaneous rupture of three to four disks along her upper spine. The next day, she was at the University of Washington for more tests, paralyzed on all four extremities.

She was told she would never walk again.

"Don't tell me I can't do something," Wiley said. "I am stubborn."

The doctors were wrong, and a month later, Wiley walked out. Her left side doesn't have feeling, but she says she compensates for it.

The online classes she had started? She had been just three weeks short of finishing her first two courses and had to withdraw.

"I was beside myself," Wiley said. "I thought I was not going to get through it."

Wiley talked with the University of Phoenix and was able to stay in the health care administration program and take the first two classes over.

Although she overcame the one medical issue, the stress on her body had compounded an earlier issue: Her emphysema. Her life was quickly becoming all about medical tests as she was evaluated for a double lung transplant — all the while taking her online classes, sometimes doing work from the hospital lobby, which had Internet access.

For Wiley, the hardest part was just getting back into "the school mode" and turning in assignments on certain days.

Homework from the hospital bed

She spent 14 months on the waiting list until May 3, when she got the call.

Two days after a double lung transplant, she was starting her least favorite subject — math.

With her laptop computer in her hospital bed, she began relearning math she hadn't done in almost 40 years.

"Whenever I wanted to, I was able to just type away," she said. "It was kind of fuzzy at first."

It took Wiley two years to get her associate's degree, and already she is signed up to start working toward her bachelor of arts (BA) degree this fall in human service management.

"They give you a couple of weeks break," Wiley said. "Then you catch your breath and get ready again. Let's see what we can have go with the BA degree. I don't think I have anything else that can go wrong. They've either taken it all out or replaced it!"

Wiley is working on finishing her last class and getting her life back.

"They gave me permission to drive yesterday," she said. "For two months, I have been dependent on others. I am very independent."

Eventually, Wiley hopes to be able to go back to work, perhaps part time. For now, she receives disability benefits.

"I miss work so bad," Wiley said. "I miss my patients. I am going to see them this afternoon. I need to do something besides the 'boob tube.'"

But first, she is going to finish up her schooling, now that she has the chance. And continue to heal.

"The best part about all this was being able to walk in graduation on June 20 without my oxygen," Wiley said. "Being in that ceremony was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen."

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