Major obstacle doesn’t deter RIC student from earning a degree

Kathy Cote
Kathy Cote had been working on-and-off toward finishing her education since she took her first accounting class in 1985. Over the decades, she faced hurdles both common and unusual for an adult learner: she worked full-time and was a single mother for most of her college career; she took time off to help a sick parent; and she is substantially deaf. Only two years ago she received a cochlear implant that enabled her to hear.

But during the fall 2010 semester, she faced her greatest challenge – just as she was finishing the last of the courses necessary to complete her undergraduate degree.

The trouble started in November, when she discovered she had shingles, a viral disease that causes pain and a skin rash. During a visit to the doctor’s she mentioned that she’d also been experiencing strange “hot flashes” for nearly a year, and they seemed to be worsening.

She was referred to a neurologist, who ordered a CT scan to rule out what he thought might be migraines.

On Dec. 3, she had the scan and just three hours later, her neurologist called with bad news: The scan showed one or two small lesions on her brain and some swelling. He told her to pick up the scan films and meet him at the hospital as soon as possible.

At this point, Cote had just six days to go before her classes – and degree requirements– were finished.

More expansive scans at Rhode Island Hospital revealed one tumor and “fairly significant swelling,” according to Cote.

“They released me and said that I could try to finish the semester, but that if things got worse I'd have to drop everything and come back in,” she said.

She was also told that the hot flashes were actually small seizures.

The tumor, slightly smaller than a golf ball, was buried in her left temporal lobe, above and in front of her ear.

“It was also apparently…close to some major blood vessels in the brain that they need to very wary of. So it would be a delicate, touch-and-go kind of surgery, quite literally,” Cote said.

Until the surgery, it was unclear what type tumor it was – benign, malignant, primarily of the brain or from elsewhere.

“That added such stress to an already heavy semester because it was in a very sensitive area: literally on top of, and entwined and embedded in what they call my communications center,” Cote explained.

But she was undeterred in her pursuit of a degree. “With some extra help, compassion, and understanding from my four amazing teachers that semester, I got through it and finished it. There is no way I can imagine how I would have done it without them and their help.”

She underwent surgery on Dec. 22, a so-called "awake craniotomy," in which surgeons kept Cote conscious and talking to them throughout most of the procedure.

They would be probing very carefully with an electronic stimulus before cutting in any area to see and hear her responses, Cote said. The surgeons were also watching carefully for any twitches of slackness on the right side of her face that would indicate whether or not they were in a safe place to cut at the tumor. In addition, doctors spoke to Cote and listened for responses that could betray problems, such as slurring or mixing up words.

The more obvious and serious risks posed by the operation included bleeding and stroke.

As it turned out, the surgery was successful. “They think they got it all and that it was what they call ‘mostly benign.’”

Cote was able to come home on Christmas Eve and endured what she described as a “long, and fairly hard recovery” that included minor complications and some side effects.

“But the good news is that I am back to work, feeling good, and graduating on time,” said Cote, who added that her three-month follow-up doctor’s visit showed no recurrence of the tumor.

“Needless to say I was terrified and so were my family and friends,” she recalled. “How we all got each other through it I could call a mystery, but it really just comes down to an amazing amount of love and faith. I can never express the depth of my love and gratitude to all of them.”

Kathryn Cote, walked across the steps of The Murray Center in her cap and gown at the undergraduate commencement on May 21, graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in accounting from RIC’s School of Management. (Cote also has an associate’s degree from the Community College of Rhode Island.)

“I always like to say ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’ and believe me, after an experience like this, it’s almost all small stuff,” Cote said. She had some advice for younger students: “The things that seem so vitally important to you right now, you probably won’t even remember 10 or 20 years from now.”

There is no doubt, however, that Cote will vividly remember her graduation from RIC – and how she was able to outlast the adversity that almost scuttled a quest that began back in 1985.