2013: The year of possibilities
By April Frawley Birdwell
This month, The POST brings you six stories about faculty, staff and students from across UF&Shands who inspire us and remind us that it’s never too late to reach for new dreams.
Crossing the bridge from Mexico into Texas, Hugo Galdos started to cry. He was hundreds of miles from his native Cuba and his family, but finally, he felt like he was home.
It had been a year since he fled Venezuela, on the run from his own arrest after refusing to take part in political activities there. A dentist in Cuba, he and other medical professionals had been sent to the country to provide health care. But that wasn’t what the Hugo Chavez-led regime had in mind for them when they got there.
“I didn’t want to be part of that, so I got in trouble with the people who were running the mission,” Galdos says. “So I had to defect or they would have put me in jail.”
With no other choice in front of him, Galdos escaped into Colombia and made his way country by country across Central America into Mexico. His conversations with his family back in Cuba were few and he had to stop often to work to raise money for the rest of his journey. But in 2005, a year after fleeing, he finally made it.
In 2010, he was able to bring his wife to the U.S. — they now have a 6-month old baby — and in a few years he hopes to bring over his oldest daughter, whom he has not seen in nine years.
“That’s been the hardest thing for me,” he says.
After a few years of working, Galdos applied and was accepted into the UF College of Dentistry. Although he was already a trained dentist, Galdos repeated dental school so he could practice dentistry in the U.S. He will graduate in the spring.
“Every time I think about the big moment on graduation day I think I am going to sit and cry,” he says. “It has been a long way.”
The night Glenn Storr suffered a brain stem stroke, doctors told his parents to prepare for his funeral.
He was 35.
“I was basically helpless,” he says. “My stomach shut down. They did not think I would make it through the night.”
Slowly, Storr made progress and within a week was transferred from an Ocala hospital to the Shands Rehab Hospital. He spent one month there, working with therapists and trying to recover some of the function he lost in the stroke. At the time, he could not walk or eat on his own.
“It was a difficult time trying to adjust and having to rely on everybody to help you,” he says. “It was trying, but I learned a lot about myself and my faith and I got a lot stronger. I had hope that one day I would be able to walk again, and praise the Lord, I did.”
A year after the stroke, Storr was able to walk without assistance. But it took three years and one month — and countless hours of therapy — before doctors could unhook his feeding tube and he could eat on his own again.
“It was a huge relief,” he says. “I had been told by several specialists that I would possibly never eat again.”
During his own recovery, Storr began driving 150 miles each week to volunteer at Shands Rehab Hospital and help patients who faced the same situation as him. Over time he moved to Gainesville, and his dedication turned into a full-time job as a rehab aide.
Now, 15 years after his stroke and 10 years after he began working full-time at Shands Rehab, Storr says he feels blessed — and happy to be able to offer patients a little hope.
“Doctors and nurses sometimes ask me to talk to patients and families because they cannot envision the end result,” he says. “It gives them hope and encouragement to see me doing well. It gives me hope, too, because I am encouraging somebody.”
In 2003, Daniel Logan, M.D., found himself in septic shock in the intensive care unit, a blood clot in his leg and a central line pumping medications into his body.
He was an addict, and on that day, his addiction to opiates nearly killed him.
“Everything I have in my life now, I owe to recovery,” says Logan, now an assistant professor in the College of Medicine and an addiction medicine specialist at the UF&Shands Florida Recovery Center.
Unlike most addicts, Logan’s troubles surfaced later in life. He began using intravenous opiates in 1987 after a clinic he had invested in failed.
“I felt so ashamed that I could not take care of my family,” he says. “My solution to that was to use drugs to kind of deal with the feelings of that.”
Interestingly, his career blossomed during the course of his addiction. A board-certified emergency medicine physician, he was on faculty at the University of Kansas.
But he lost that and more when his addiction spiraled out of control in 2003. He entered recovery — for the third time — and made a breakthrough and a personal connection with the center’s medical director, who had been in recovery from his own addiction for 20 years.
“There were enough similarities that he gave me hope,” he said. “He was where I was and things got better for him.”
In 2005, a year after clearing the restrictions on his medical license, Logan embarked on a new career and entered a fellowship program in addiction medicine at UF. Now on the faculty, he offers the same hope to patients that his doctor once offered him.
“To me the most important thing I can tell other people is that there is hope,” Logan says. “They don’t have to do it alone. I could not have done it alone.”
Follow a new path
With a thriving career under way in marketing, public relations and fundraising, Eleni Polopolus Sheehan still felt a little like a kid who didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I thought what is my passion?” Sheehan says. “I realized that so much of what I cared about were some of things I was doing on the side to help other people with diabetes.”
Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 9, Sheehan volunteered, helped friends and mentored a young child who also had the disease. With this in mind, she set a new goal — to become a diabetes educator and a nurse.
The only stumbling block, initially, was that she had always believed she wasn’t good at math or science. But she sailed through her prerequisites and was admitted into the College of Nursing’s accelerated B.S.N. program, which is offered to students who already have an undergraduate degree.
The first semester was “overwhelming,” Sheehan says, but by the second, she realized she had made the right choice. Now, a year-and-a-half later, she finished the program this semester and graduated. She has applied for graduate school to become a family nurse practitioner and hopes to do that and work part time.
“I think I can help people from a unique perspective,” she says. “During my practicum, I had a wonderful opportunity to work one on one with students (at an elementary school) with Type 1. For children, especially, it’s a family thing. It affects everyone and everyone needs to be together.”
Seek silver linings
Speeding headfirst down a perilous winding chute of ice at speeds more than 70 miles an hour sounded crazy to Aliyah Snyder’s mother. But to Snyder, a surfer, a rower and a generally adventurous type, the obscure winter sport “skeleton” sounded fun.
After watching the sport and trying out in Lake Placid, N.Y., Snyder joined the Israeli national skeleton team in 2007 and competed for two years, aiming to make the 2014 Olympic team. But before she could realize that dream, a series of concussions, coupled with the constant shaking from barreling down the icy track, ended her career.
“The neurologists told me I had something similar to shaken baby syndrome as an adult,” Snyder says. “After the last concussion, it took me two years to recover.”
Suffering through a range of symptoms from headaches to cognitive and visual impairment that left her unable to drive and work, Snyder medically retired and moved back in with her parents.
“It was a difficult time,” she says. “I would be in the kitchen in the house where I grew up, but I could not remember where things were.”
Slowly, she started to recover, and she realized she wanted to focus on a new goal — helping other people avoid or know how to deal with sports concussions. Last year, she joined the College of Public Health and Health Professions as a doctoral student and is focused on developing assessment tools for sports concussions.
Part of helping athletes and others with concussions is understanding the long-term effects. For example multiple injuries might lead to changes in the structure of the brain that contribute to longer-lasting symptoms and problems, Snyder says.
With another grad student, she also launched Athlete Brain, a group of volunteers that is raising awareness about sports concussions through HealthStreet, a UF Clinical and Translational Science Institute program that helps link the community to needed services.
Looking at her life now as a Ph.D. student poised for a new career, Snyder says it feels surreal compared to where she was just two years ago.
“It was very scary, but it allowed me to move into the area I am in now. If I had not gotten injured I would probably still be in Lake Placid,” she says. “While that is something I would have been very proud of myself for, the dreams and goals I have here are more fulfilling than an individual goal.”
Six years ago, Sheila McThenia was a busy stay-at-home mom with four young sons and a husband, who was an attorney in Orlando.
Her life changed on Feb. 14, 2007. That’s the day she found out a lump in her breast was stage 3 breast cancer, and that it had spread to 24 of her lymph nodes.
Then 40, she had a mastectomy on one side, six months of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of radiation, in addition to being in a clinical trial for a new cancer drug.
McThenia would wake up in middle of the night and worry how her husband would manage to care for their boys if she died. He assured her he’d take care of them if she’d focus instead on deciding what she wanted to do if she lived.
“I decided if I had a chance to live, I wanted not just to survive, but thrive,” she says.
McThenia wanted to pursue her long-held dream of attending medical school.
While undergoing cancer treatment, she took her required science classes and aced the tests. She volunteered in the surgical oncology floor at her local hospital. She ran a half-marathon.
And last year, she was accepted to the UF College of Medicine. McThenia celebrated the end of her first semester of medical school Dec. 8 when she strode across the stage of the HPNP Auditorium to receive her white coat with a radiant smile.
A profoundly grateful survivor, McThenia hopes to practice oncology in underserved populations when she graduates.
“I’m very confident I wouldn’t have had the guts to go to medical school without this journey,” McThenia says. — Melanie Stawicki Azam