Success in the face of adversity
Despite an ominous diagnosis, UALR student Sarah Cunningham refuses to let her medical condition slow her down or interfere with her education and desire for a career in nursing.
Growing up in the shaded Little Rock neighborhood known as Hillcrest, she always had family near. She describes her childhood fondly. “We grew up right off Kavanaugh,” said Cunningham, “and trips to the grocery store might as well have been family reunions.”
The only daughter of four children, and the last girl in the Cunningham bloodline. The 28-year-old with sandy-blonde hair stands 5-feet-1-inch tall, just an inch taller than her mother.
After receiving a diploma from Mount St. Mary, an all-girl Catholic High School located within walking distance from her childhood home, Sarah began her education at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 2004. Although she began college as an interior design major, her career path and life as she knew it would soon change.
Following a three-year break from school, enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2008 to continue her pursuit in interior design. One year later, during the spring semester of 2009, lost motor function in her right hand and was unable to complete two of her courses. In fear and confusion, she was cycled through the care of numerous doctors before an MRI finally helped determine that the temporary paralysis in her hand was a symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS).
Cunningham admits that at first, the diagnosis was scary news. “When I was first diagnosed with MS,” she explained, “I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to go into nursing, have children, or do all of the things I love to do.”
Although faced with a medical condition that would seem terrifying to most, Cunningham has learned how to deal with it by focusing on the management of her stress. “It’s an auto-immune disease, so one of the biggest factors is stress,” Cunningham says, “and stress is a bit hard to deal with in nursing school.”
One of the ways that she deals with stress is by spending time with her family and doing the things she loves, such as cooking, swimming and traveling.
Cunningham also credits her boyfriend of three years, Tim Anson, a business major at UALR, for being a great source of support throughout her struggle.
“We were together when I was diagnosed and he’s just always been there for me,” she said, “I definitely could not have done it without him.”
One of Cunningham’s best friends is her brother, John William Cunningham, a 26-year-old freshman at UALR majoring in early childhood education. He said that he thinks her diagnosis with MS has affected her in a positive way. “She’s always been a nice, giving and helpful person,” John explains, “but now she seems more focused on school and has a generally better outlook on things.”
Around the time she began to show symptoms of MS, Cunningham decided to abandon her pursuit in interior design to enroll in UALR’s nursing program in the fall of 2009. Although this was something that Cunningham and her brother had both considered, Cunningham’s brother says he thinks that her diagnosis affirmed her passion for the field.
“After I took anatomy and physiology my first semester at UALR, I became absolutely intrigued by nursing,” Cunningham recalled, “but I think that my diagnosis definitely influenced my decision to go into nursing, it just seemed right.”
Along with undertaking a busy academic career, Cunningham has been a full-time employee at U.S. Pizza Co. in the Heights for the past 10 years. However, this year marks a break in her tedious schedule. Thanks to Pell grants, university financial aid and help from Arkansas Rehabilitation Services, she is now able to cut her workload in half to focus more on her education. “She’s been studying for almost 10 years, which pretty much makes her a professional student,” John said.
After being a full-time student for the larger portion of the past seven years, Cunningham is at last in her final academic year at UALR. She hopes to graduate in May with an associate in science and nursing (ASN) and to continue in pursuit of her bachelor degree (BSN) in the same field, which she said will take her a year.
“You just have to learn how to deal with it like anything else. It may slow you down, but it doesn’t stop you.”