HOUSTON - As she walked across the stage, LeighAnna Hutchinson could not believe the day had come.
There she was -- graduating yet again from Baylor University, this time having earned a doctorate in nursing practice.
"I feel incredibly proud of myself and the accomplishments that have been the culmination of the past three years of really hard work and dedication and lots of courage," said Hutchinson, 28.
Courage helped to pave the path that's been Hutchinson's journey.
"Twenty-one years ago, in 1998, I was told the three words no child wants to hear, which is, 'You have cancer," she said.
It wasn't just any cancer and not just one diagnosis.
"I was diagnosed with a rare form of a brain tumor called granulocytic sarcoma and that, at the same time, I had AML (acute myeloid leukemia) Leukemia," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson was 7 when she learned of her diagnosis.
Doctors told Hutchinson and her parents that the odds were against her surviving very long.
That day, Hutchinson's mother, Jaynie, crawled into bed with her. It was then that LeighAnna informed her mother of her plans. Spoiler: They had nothing to do with dying.
"My mom crawled in bed with me and I told her that day, 'You know Mom, when I grow up, I want to be a nurse. I want to work at MD Anderson and I want to go to Baylor,'" Hutchinson said.
What did her mom think?
"I was thinking, 'There's no way. You're not going to second grade. How can I promise you this?'" Jaynie Hutchinson said.
Still, Jaynie Hutchison comforted her daughter and prepared for a fight. After five years, LeighAnna Hutchinson beat cancer. That's partly why she went to nursing school.
The other reason was the nurses who helped her.
"Those nurses stand by you and, yes, they're 20-some odd years older, but they're singing Spice Girls and watching 'Grease' with you and they treated me more than just a diagnosis and more than medical record No. 1. I was LeighAnna," Hutchinson said.
The Spice Girls were her favorite, along with barbecue flavored Fritos.
LeighAnna Hutchinson first graduated from Baylor University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. Since then, she's worked at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital.
"I find that, when I open up and do say, 'Hey, I'm not just your nurse giving you chemo today. I've been in this bed. I know what it's like,' all of a sudden, those barriers -- they fall between me and my patient and their family," Hutchinson said.
Returning to school
Eventually, Hutchinson decided to return to school. On Saturday (Aug. 17) she received her doctorate.
She is now a nurse practitioner.
The day of commencement proved perfect, too: Aug. 17, 1998, was the day doctors told the Hutchinsons that their daughter likely wouldn't make it.
That's no coincidence, both Hutchinson and her mother said.
"I was remembering that little girl and the fighter that she was and thanking her for getting me where I am today," Hutchinson said.
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