Sharan didn’t expect to go back to college 40 years after she graduated high school but she’s flourishing at SCCC
EDITOR’S NOTE — Due to the sensitive nature of information about domestic violence, SCCC is honoring this student’s request to use only a first name in the story.
Stretched out on her sofa that morning three years ago, Sharan didn’t notice the late-summer sunlight streaming through the window. She didn’t hear her neighbor knocking on the front door. And she didn’t feel a thing when her husband, panicked, tried to wake her.
“I wasn’t cognizant of anything,” she says. “My brain was bleeding and swelling. My brain stem was pushed down into my neck — a fraction more, and I’d have been dead.” Sharan only knows these details, she says, because family members and healthcare providers told her months later.
That day, Aug. 21, 2012, Sharan silently, unconsciously fought for her life.
It’s a dark memory that casts just a slight shadow as she walks up the sloping pavement to the Hobble Academic Building at Seward County Community College/Area Technical School. This sunshiney August morning, she’s headed to class, a bright beginning to a chapter of life she never expected.
A Southwest Kansas native, Sharan grew up yearning for adventure and faraway places.
“I graduated from Liberal High School in 1972, and left town. I had no plans to go to college,” she recalls. “Coming back to Liberal, coming to college — that wasn’t my plan.”
Decades later, the plan changed the day she awoke at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., where she’d been airlifted after six weeks in the Intensive Care Unit at Via Christi Hospital in Wichita.
“I didn’t know where I was,” Sharan said. “I couldn’t sit up. I didn’t know my kids’ names.”
Over the next few weeks, she began to piece together what had happened to her — and what she’d lost.
“I remember that day in August, my husband was late coming home, so I started cleaning the house,” she said. Absorbed in her work, she missed a cellphone call. Later, when she listened to the message, she realized it was an accidentally-dialed call that recorded her husband with another woman. When he came home, she confronted him. The couple argued.
“He grabbed the phone and broke it,” she said. “He beat me. My next memory is being thrown off the bed, then waking up to go out to the garage to smoke a cigarette.”
Sharan wasn’t sure what had caused her to black out. Later, medical tests showed she had sustained blunt trauma to her head.
“I think he probably head-butted me,” she said, “but I really don’t know. This is just what I’ve been told.”
Unaware of the seriousness of her injuries, Sharan curled up in the living room to take a nap. It’s the last thing she recalls about the day that changed her life trajectory.
“My husband came back to the house the next morning, and he couldn’t rouse me. He called my daughter in Colorado and told her I wasn’t waking up. She knew he’d hit me before. She said, ‘You’ve got to call 911.’”
Records show a 30-minute gap in the two phone calls. Once the ambulance arrived, the health care professionals wasted no time in getting the unconscious woman into surgery.
“I had an emergency craniotomy,” Sharan said, grimacing. “Basically, they had to saw through my skull to release the pressure on my brain. I was already in a coma.”
For most of her adult life, Sharan had relied on her physical strength and stamina. A long-distance runner, she competed in races and relished outdoor recreation. She applied that same work ethic to her entrepreneurial venture, a cleaning business that employed 10 people.
“I’ve always been a doer,” she said. “I come by it honestly. My mother is 80 years old, and she still works full-time.”
At Craig Hospital, however, Sharan’s physical exertion was measured in millimeters rather than miles.
“I had to learn to swallow again,” she said. “It was six or nine months before I even tried to walk.”
She struggled with anger about her new everyday reality.
“I harbored ill feelings,” she said. “I can’t believe they can do brain surgery on a person, and nobody has to sign. I went through a time where I wished they had let me die. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t do anything; I wondered, ‘Why the heck am I still here?’”
Sharan’s daughter Jennifer, who lived in the Denver area, came to the hospital every day to visit her. Her son, J.D., took a leave of absence from his job in Liberal to stay by her side. Both children had intervened to alter a plan proposed by the ex-husband as their mother remained in a coma in Wichita. He planned to move her to a nursing home, “and just leave me there,” Sharan said. “They applied for temporary guardianship, and she found a place where I could get rehabilitation.”
Though the court-ordered transfer represented a triumph of family loyalty, the results weren’t easy to navigate. Sharan worked daily to regain basic skills. She could talk, but her speech was hard to understand. Therapists worked with her to retrain her mouth to articulate.
“I was like a child. I had to learn everything all over again,” she said. “After about a year, I was able to go to live with my daughter and just come in for three hours a day for therapy. Then I had it three times a week. Then I had more therapy at home.”
She learned to walk using an apparatus hooked to the ceiling, a maddening arrangement for the woman who longed to run down an open road in the countryside. An electronic stimulator implanted in her shoe “told” her foot to lift, rather than lie limp on the floor.
“That was a process,” she recalled with a laugh. “The therapist would crouch down and take my legs individually, and move them with me. I finally got the hang of it.”
Today, Sharan walks with a cane, a knee brace, and focused determination that prompts her foot not to drag. She’s able to drive her own car. And she puts in long hours gardening and working on home improvement at the house she bought in Liberal.
“You have to deal with what God gives you,” she said.
A little over a year ago, Sharan had started to find her way back to the outside world, but she wasn’t sure about the next step. She’d been living with her daughter in Colorado. Her domestic-abuse case and divorce continued to work through the legal system, but the “he-said, she-said” nature, and her own lack of memory of the traumatic event, created difficulties that linger. She contemplated a fresh start in Oklahoma City. But she couldn’t imagine what she might do to support herself. Then there were the objections her children voiced.
“My kids really didn’t want me to live alone,” she said. “Then I had this epiphany: I needed to be back in Liberal, to help my mother, and my brother, who’s a quadriplegic.”
Other big decisions loomed.
“I was pretty uncertain about my future. I knew I couldn’t do certain things anymore, what I’d done for 30 years,” she said. “I knew I was getting older, but I don’t want to b dependent on Social Security. I took some assessments to find out what I might be good at, and one of the suggestions was accounting.”
Sharan had done a bit of that before.
“But I had no college. I didn’t have any idea how to get started,” she said.
Venturing onto the SCCC campus for the first time, she found her way to the office of Academic Advising Director Patsy Fischer. She sat on the cushiony sofa upholstered in bright patchwork colors, looked at the cheery inspirational posters on the wall, took a deep breath, and asked for help.
“I told her my story,” Sharan said, “and I asked her how to get a degree. She was on my side from the beginning.” By the time Sharan left campus that day, she was enrolled in General Education courses for the spring semester.
“I didn’t know how I was going to handle it,” she said, “but I knew I was going to try.”
Now, with a semester of college under her belt, Sharan has a confident air that shines through in a quick smile. During her first semester in college, spring 2015, she completed English Composition with the highest competence score instructor Anita Reed had ever recorded. She finished Public Speaking, even though she contemplated dropping the class.
“I wasn’t sure I could get up in front of a class and talk for five minutes,” she recalled. Yet by semester’s end, she had presented talks on how to break free of an abusive relationship, how to assemble a disaster survival kit, and how to petition local government officials for help with zoning issues. The college’s award-winning literary journal, Telolith, published a personal essay she’d written. And she was elated to make the Dean’s Honor Roll.
“It wasn’t so bad after all,” she said. “I started college with some trepidation. I kept remembering that saying, ‘If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.’ I knew that nobody’s going to do it for me.”
What Sharan didn’t know was that she would become part of a community.
“I have a label,” she said. “I’m a nontraditional student. I have my cane. I thought I was going to be so different than everyone, than the kids coming out of high school. But you know, everyone is accepting of me and I so appreciate that.”
Sharan plans to earn her associate degree from Seward by the end of 2016, then explore options for a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She’d like to take advantage of one of the special degree-completion programs offered in partnership with Tabor College, Newman University, or Friends University.
“I never expected it,” she said, “but I’ve made some good friends here at the college. I love being in the classroom. I worried that I was too old, but it’s really never too late to start.”
Ultimately, she views education as something she owes herself.
“No matter what trials and tribulations life gives me, if I survive them, I am indebted to myself to make the best of the circumstances, to be the best I can be,” she said. “Sometimes, it is easy to lose a sense of self in certain situations, and regaining it requires reprogramming of the self, regardless of age. Furthering my education is assisting me in finding that new self.”
Sharan chooses to be glad for what she is able to do, rather than dwelling on what’s no longer available.
“I’m thankful for what I can do to grow personally and spiritually,” she said. “I’ve been emancipated! I am able to dream of possibilities once again, without criticism, negativity or abuse from outside sources. I have a new sense of freedom in spite of what transpired. It is possible to dig oneself out of the depths of despair, and to flourish.”
Every Monday morning, when she heads to class, that intention shows with every deliberate, focused step.