It was the summer of 2014. Karmeshia Gray was studying biology, with plans to become a doctor. The next step in that pursuit was applying for a job at UNM Hospital.
But what began as a drive to get some experience for a career became a physical ordeal, a mental struggle and now, three years later, a story of motivation and strength.
Gray was diagnosed in the summer of 2014 with tuberculosis, after an adverse reaction to an immunization caused a dormant form of the disease in her body to become active. She was in the process of getting all the required shots to work at UNMH, but the diagnosis turned her into a hospital patient instead of an employee.
“It could have either been a really bad turning point or a really good one,” she said. “It turned out to be a really good one.”
But not before some trying times that called for a re-shifting of priorities, immense mental strength and another disturbing revelation.
“They did an X-ray, and they also found a tumor,” she said. “I forget how big it was, but there was a tumor in my left lung as well.”
Since tuberculosis is an airborne disease, Gray had to be quarantined for periods of time. She continued to work at Aldo Shoes, but she had to wear a mask.
“I was having breathing issues,” she said. “I had to sleep with a humidifier, I had to use an asthma pump. I had to get constant biopsies and PET scans, always being placed under some sort of machine.”
At her lowest point, Gray contemplated taking her own life. She said she even got as far as writing the note.
Family support, faith and prayer helped her put the pen down and ensure she would fight for the next chapter of her life to be written.
“I had to claim for myself that I was going to get over this disease, that it was going to not be something that held me back,” she said. “But something that would actually press me forward.”
Gray was taking summer classes at the time, but as a result of what was essentially a lifestyle change — one that perhaps made education seem unimportant in the short term — it became impossible for her to pass them.
The new semester started, and Gray’s mother asked if she wanted to come home and be with family while she received treatment. But home was a thousand miles away in Winnsboro, Louisiana.
Gray said no. This, she said, was something she had to overcome on her own.
“It had been two years,” she said. “I had gained this independence, and I didn’t come to school to drop out.”
For nine months, treatment became routine. While other students were balancing school with things like work and figuring out how to make next month’s rent, she was fighting for her life.
It was pills. It was endless appointments. It was a decision whether or not to have surgery to remove the tumor in her lung, which was benign, but could cause complications down the road.
At the same time, Gray was getting stronger.
Nine months after the initial diagnosis, the treatment was finished. She continued with her studies, and is now graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in biology, as well as minors in psychology and human health – interests that stemmed from her ordeal and the human side of healthcare.
Despite the physical and mental rigors of battling tuberculosis and her benign tumor, Gray said the entire ordeal has made her a stronger person, one who was able to achieve a higher level of independence than most other students who leave home to go to college.
“It contributed to how headstrong and steadfast I am as an individual,” she said.
After her experience, Gray said she wants to become a physician’s assistant and help other patients in similar situations. She said she especially wants to emphasize to them that they shouldn’t define themselves by whatever illness they may have.
The choice to go from studying to be a doctor to wanting to be a physician’s assistant was made out of a culmination of factors, including negative experience with doctors that felt more robotic than personable.
“It’s a point where you need to be the most positive,” she said. “That’s the only thing that’s going to get you through the diagnosis, the only thing that’s going to get you through treatment and the only thing that’s going to get you through after that.”
The scar from that initial immunization is still visible on Gray’s left arm. It’s much smaller than it was in June of 2014, and hard to notice unless you know what she has gone through.
What once was a mark of struggle is now a testament of faith and strength. Gray didn’t have the support system of her family readily available in Albuquerque when she may have needed it, but it didn’t stop her. If anything, it made her future path more clear.
“It still affects me emotionally,” she said. “But I put that type of emotion and strength into what I want to do.”
David Lynch is a reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.