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Heartfelt journey

Grenfell student overcomes life-threatening illness to earn B.Sc.

The Gazette’s latest special feature celebrates Memorial’s newest alumni.

By Melanie Callahan

For one Memorial spring graduate, the journey to a university degree meant hospital beds replaced dorm rooms and surgeries replaced time with friends.

But, with a fighting spirit and a fierce support network, Amanda Saunders is being awarded a bachelor of science degree this month.

Rare condition

In the fall of 2018 Ms. Saunders, who hails from Grand Falls-Windsor, was preparing to graduate from the psychology program in Grenfell Campus’s School of Arts and Social Sciences. She was also living with end-stage heart failure.

“That summer, I was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart that resulted from a rare form of muscular dystrophy I have been living with for my entire life,” she said.

“I could barely walk the length of myself, I could not eat or drink without getting violently ill, I slept for 14-17 hours a day and I could not focus on anything for more than 10 minutes at a time.”

Despite her weakened state, she was determined to focus the little energy she had on her studies. Unfortunately, she was forced to cut her studies short when she learned that she needed a heart transplant.

Amanda’s Journey

Ms. Saunders’ situation hit many of her fellow psychology students hard.

To help, Grenfell’s Psychology Society held a series of fundraisers, including a carnival night, devoting their time and resources to help offset the medical-related travel costs incurred by the Saunders family.

Grenfell’s Psychology Society organized and executed Amanda’s Journey, a fundraiser for their classmate.
Photo: Submitted

“This fundraiser was one of the highlights of my degree,” said Abigail Peyton, a former president of the student society.

“Preparing and executing a carnival-themed fundraiser with students and faculty was a lot of fun, and knowing that it would help Amanda made it extremely special. Although the circumstances around the fundraiser were not favourable, I am grateful that the Psychology Society and I had the opportunity to support her in this way.”

‘So ready to be back’

Only a few months later, Ms. Saunders received the heart transplant she desperately needed.

She describes it as an “incredible success.” It wasn’t without complications, however, including extensive kidney damage.

“Fast forward four-and-a-half months later, that September, I returned to school. I was so ready to be back to learning and connecting with my professors and classmates again,” she said.

Unfortunately, her return to her university education again came to a sudden halt.

On March 6, 2020, two days before her 23rd birthday, Ms. Saunders was diagnosed with post transplant lymphoprolifterative disorder, a rare type of blood cancer brought on by her transplant.

“Grenfell Campus will forever hold a special place in both of my hearts.” — Amanda Saunders

She was devastated.

However, she remained committed to her studies and managed to achieve a balance between treatment, course work and research.

It paid off: Ms. Saunders is now cancer free and officially graduates this month.

Two women embrace in front of a brick wall, the younger woman wearing a convocation gown
Amanda Saunders is celebrating her graduation with her mother and greatest advocate, Sandra Thomas.
Photo: Lori Lee Pike

“My instructors and classmates were some of the best cheerleaders I have ever had while going through my transplant and cancer treatment,” she said.

“Each time I took a step back from my studies, they were always awaiting my return, and when I did, they did so with open arms and hearts. They were always there to support and encourage me whenever I needed it. This university is one of a kind, and I am forever grateful to have been a student. Grenfell Campus will forever hold a special place in both of my hearts.”

“Amanda was a very engaged, enthusiastic, and determined student,” said Dr. Sonya Corbin-Dwyer, one of Ms. Saunders’ psychology professors.

“She never waivered from her goal of getting her degree in psychology. She faced her physical illness with optimism, humour, gratitude, and grace. Her positive outlook is infectious. She is definitely a shining star.”

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