Video: Sabrina Walker, CU Denver alumna, received the 2017 Michael Brennan Courage Award from the Boomer Esiason Foundaton. The organization promotes awareness of and fundraising for cystic fibrosis.
When she should have been packing books and bean-bag chairs, Sabrina Walker began chemotherapy. With college-acceptance letter in hand and scholarships in place, the 18-year-old’s plans were abruptly halted by a cancer diagnosis. Instead of dorm life, late nights and final exams, the Alaska native waved goodbye to her college-bound friends and dug in for a fight for her life. And it wasn’t even her first time.
Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF) at age 4, Walker wasn’t expected to live past her eighth birthday. But with the help of supportive family, a strong desire for life, and advancements in treatment, Walker blew past that prognosis, largely using running to clear the deadly mucus that plagued her lungs. Then non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma challenged her again.
“I was really sad. I was really angry,” said Walker. “I was scared of the unknown and of dying. So I tried to think of all the things that I would do if I got through that. And I knew I wanted to go to college.”
Today, Walker credits that college inspiration for changing her life. A 2011 graduate of CU Denver, Walker went on to recover from lymphoma, attend the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, marry her soulmate, become a mother and serve as a highly-visible advocate for cystic fibrosis, all milestones many CF patients are unable to achieve.
Facing academic obstacles
Although it’s becoming more common, going to college with the genetic disorder is rare. In people with CF, a defective gene causes a thick, sticky buildup of mucus in the lungs and other organs. Over time, the disease causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe.
Focusing on health and keeping deadly infections at bay consumes CF patients’ days, so school isn’t always a priority. “You don’t really know when your health is going to take a turn for the worse,” said Walker, who had just gotten out of the hospital with a lung infection for at least the 10th time in her 31 years.
The academic lifestyle also presents unique challenges for CF patients. For instance, with their compromised respiratory systems, a common cold can become deadly, a real threat in packed classrooms and campus housing. Although she could have requested a single room, Walker did not. “I wanted the whole college experience. I wanted to meet people. I wanted roommates.”
So Walker, not someone who usually shared her plight with strangers, had to tell her CU Denver roommates everything, even though she acknowledges, “It’s always hard to meet new people.” It’s especially difficult when you have to reveal a lifestyle of daily breathing treatments, a multiple-pill regimen and a focus on risks for infection. “It forced me out of my shell,” said Walker, who remains friends with her roommates today.
Walker also had to manage her class schedule around treatments and doctor appointments, stick to her exercise regimen that helps clear her lungs, and deal with a two-week hospitalization during her senior year. “But they all were understanding and accommodating,” she said of her professors.
Gaining lifelong lessons
Her education enhanced important personality traits for Walker, such as empathy, positivity and determination. During one course, Immigration and Ethnicity in American History, the class read the book “‘Tis” by Frank McCourt. “The stories were about people who were overcoming adversity and hard times and coming here to have a better life,” she said. “That was a powerful message for me.”
Walker also gained a greater understanding of her heritage and a closer relationship with her grandmothers because of an assignment in that class. She interviewed the family matriarchs about their pasts for the project, which inspired a deeper connection, she said. One of her grandmothers died of breast cancer weeks before Walker’s graduation, and the notes from their talks have become prized keepsakes.
Since graduating, Walker has blossomed into an inspirational spokeswoman for CF, and she says the seed for that success was planted at CU Denver. For a final paper in an ethics class her senior year, Walker opened up for the first time about her struggles.
“The last day of class, the teacher asked if he could talk with me,” she recalled. “He said I had a story that needed to be shared with others. He said it could help inspire people to appreciate life. I think it was at that moment that I began to think about it in a different way.”
Appreciating the journey
Marrying her high-school sweetheart, who graduated from the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine, and overcoming barriers from both CF and cancer treatment that threatened her chances of pregnancy, Walker gave birth to a baby boy, Leo, her dedicated (stroller) running mate and chief inspiration for living. “He is my miracle baby, and he has changed my life in ways I never dreamt possible.”
In addition to being a full-time mom, Walker works part-time as an administrative assistant in the Alaska and Native Studies Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage and teaches ESL to Chinese students online.
She will always treasure her education and time at CU Denver, Walker said. “Denver holds a special place in my heart. I am so happy I was able to go to school and have all of these experiences. You go in there as one person and come out as another. I learned to live life outside of just having cystic fibrosis and cancer. I learned about being a person in this world.”