On graduation weekend in May 2019, Michael and Tiffany Schmidt took the stage at the University of Northern Iowa McLeod Center to receive their diplomas; he, as a business administration major in the College of Business Administration, who completed his studies in December 2018; and Tiffany, as a health promotion and education major in the College of Education, who wrapped up her internship with the Iowa Cancer Control Consortium this spring.
Two years ago, Michael and Tiffany received the gut-wrenching news that their son, just nine months old, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. On that Saturday in May, Carter, now 2 ½, watched from the audience with his grandparents. He shows no sign of cancer after a bone marrow transplant in fall 2017.
It was indeed a day of celebration. For Tiffany, it has been a long seven years, but with a good outcome.
An unconventional journey
“My whole journey has been unconventional,” she explains. Tiffany began her studies at Central College, initially to be a teacher. She then transferred to UNI, changing her major to health promotion and education. “I always knew I was interested in public health; my mom’s a health teacher at Northwest Junior High in Coralville.”
However, she still wasn’t sure about her actual focus in health promotion. Healthy eating and healthy lifestyles were important to her, but did she want to build a career around that? What happened next gave her direction.
While at UNI, she met and married Michael in spring 2016; she took off the fall 2016 semester for Carter’s birth, returning to school in January 2017. Five months later came Carter’s diagnosis. Tiffany and Michael moved back to Coralville, and Tiffany took the next year off, as Carter underwent a life-saving bone marrow transplant at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. When Carter was able to go home, Tiffany became his primary caregiver.
Finding her path in health promotion
Suddenly, Tiffany had her focus. “I stayed with health promotion, but I changed course. I knew I wanted to do something with cancer and oncology.” And, she still wanted to complete her degree -- which wasn’t an easy decision. “It was emotional. Do we finish, do we not want to add anything to our plates, we’ve got these appointments and need to work. But I wanted to finish.”
However, with Carter’s ongoing medical needs, Tiffany and Michael knew they needed to stay in Coralville. Tiffany had two classes and an internship left to earn her degree. Adviser Heidi Seegers found out about the Regents’ Universities Student Exchange Program. With Dr. Disa Cornish and Dr. Susan Roberts-Dobie helping coordinate with The University of Iowa, Tiffany completed a UI class which satisfied requirements for her degree from UNI.
Next, Sherry Hester, also with the COE’s Health, Recreation and Community Services department, helped Tiffany find an internship based in Iowa City with the cancer consortium. As an intern, Tiffany supported efforts to raise awareness about all types of cancer. “I got experience talking to people I didn’t know, making phone calls, asking them (former cancer patients) to update their information so we could be in better contact with them. It was super rewarding,” she says.
Tiffany’s first choice for an internship was Be the Match, a non-profit organization dedicated to registering bone marrow donors, had helped find the bone marrow donor in Mississippi who was a perfect match for Carter. However, there were no positions available. But Tiffany soon found herself using her personal knowledge as well as her skills gained at UNI to educate others by sharing her story with classes at UNI, Iowa State University and UI.
“After one presentation, I got a total of 12 people to sign up (as a bone marrow donor). I help put it in perspective. Kids our age think, I’m not going to need this now, I don’t see the point. I didn’t think this was going to happen to me, but it did,” Tiffany says.
For Carter, weekly appointments became monthly, and now he visits his doctor every three months. There is no evidence of disease, though he will be monitored regularly going forward.
“Parenting, working, finishing classes… everything kind of happened all at once,” says Tiffany. Sharing her story, she adds, “It’s healing for me, and I want people to understand when life hits the fan, you just need to keep moving forward.”