Pushing forward in life: Soldier survives brain tumor, interns in her career field
December 17, 2013
Less than a year ago, Spc. Allyssa Nolan underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor. Coming out of surgery and inpatient recovery, at first she couldn't walk -- now she's walked a half-marathon. She couldn't complete basic activities of daily living -- now she's working almost full-time in her field as a biomedical equipment technician. And she couldn't remember even five words in a row -- now she's one of the fastest in her shop at testing defibrillators, running through 23 steps in just three hours.
Although Nolan will downplay her illness and her extensive recovery, she said that now, "I consider myself doing well."
The tumor first started hinting of its existence in the form of bad headaches in late 2012. Nolan eventually went to the emergency room on Dec. 25 at her duty station in Korea, where they performed a CT scan and found a buildup of fluid in her brain; a later MRI found a tumor blocking a ventricle. She transferred to Madigan Army Medical Center for neurosurgery on Jan. 17, and spent the next two months recovering at the hospital before being transferred to the Warrior Transition Battalion.
She didn't overly dwell on the possible impacts of her tumor.
"I don't think it ever really set in," Nolan said. "It didn't seem like that big of a deal to me. I guess I may have gotten a little bit worried when they said you might have memory problems, and you might have speech problems and stuff like that, but I don't think it ever really set in."
After her surgery, she had to relearn how to walk and talk and do daily activities; her tumor was in her brain's frontal lobe, impacting her emotions, cognitive functioning and memory. The long stay in a hospital bed resulted in no walking endurance and stability issues (things would "tilt"), so Nolan found herself in a wheelchair and then a walker. Now she can walk without either, although she still experiences balance and endurance issues.
Although she was still recovering when she got to Bravo Company this spring, Nolan asked on her first day if she could work in an internship in her field at Madigan. That same day, "I got a call within an hour and they were saying that they'd love to have me come and work with them."
First she had to interview with the Clinical Engineering Branch's then-chief warrant officer, who gave her a stern talk about his expectations of her dedication to his shop. Working daily since then except for medical appointments, "I passed his test," Nolan said.
She said she loves her job: "Broken equipment actually is kind of like a puzzle, trying to figure out what's wrong with it and fix it."
Her days consist of doing regular maintenance testing and repairs as needed on medical equipment such as blood pressure cuffs, x-ray machines, defibrillators and more. Nolan is learning how to maintain new equipment, and even took leave to go to a manufacturer's training on dental equipment.
"She's extremely dedicated; there's absolutely nothing I've ever asked her to do that she hasn't gone out of the way to complete the task," said Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Tucker, the Clinical Engineering Branch's noncommissioned officer in charge.
As she goes through her medical evaluation board, Nolan is setting herself up to be successful in her same field as a civilian. She recently tested to be a certified biomedical equipment technician -- a certification that both the military and civilian employers value.
Nolan advises her fellow Soldiers to prepare now for their transitions.
"A lot of the jobs in the military aren't equivocal to the outside world, so I think a lot of people need to understand that there's more they need to do to assimilate into society," said Nolan, who worked as an emergency medical technician before joining the Army; she encourages Soldiers to make career contacts and get related training now. Nolan is following her own advice.
"She's actively putting herself in a position where she's more marketable for her civilian track," said Master Sgt. Vivian Grob, Nolan's platoon sergeant here. She noted her enthusiasm and positive attitude, saying that, "She's very inspirational to others; she sets the example of what we want to see of a wounded warrior recovering."