HOUSTON - A University of Houston graduate and single mother of a special needs child has received her master’s degree after overcoming many obstacles the average college student has never endured.
Taylor Williams, 24, of Dallas, crossed the stage as family cheered in relief after spending many nights in the hospital with her daughter Grace, 2, who has suffered from six different medical conditions since she was born.
Williams said she received her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Texas Women's University in Denton and decided to take on the masters of education in Houston because she wanted to focus on preventive measures and keep children from heading down the wrong path. The summer before graduate school, Williams said she found out she was pregnant.
"I graduated undergrad and two months later I found out I was pregnant. I really just thought, what am I going to do? My plan was to go back to school but I really just thought my dreams were shattered and I was really distraught about it, but I have a very strong support system," Williams said.
She said her mother and aunt backed her up 110 percent. Williams said with their help, she was able to push through and continue her education.
Williams said her pregnancy was pretty normal the first few months until her last trimester when she found out her fluids were dropping and having trouble staying up.
"It was really nothing I could do. It was kind of like I had a bad placenta -- you don't really get to choose your placenta. So towards the end, I was hospitalized," she said.
Williams said she was scheduled for an emergency cesarean and her daughter, Grace, was born two months early. Little did Williams know, that was the beginning to many other challenges.
"From there the complications just trickled on. We found out she has heart disease, her heart was not completely developed before she was born," Williams said. "She was also born with an airway obstruction, and those were her two major diagnoses being in the neonatal ICU."
Grace stopped breathing during the night.
While in school, Williams said she was finally able to take her daughter home after being in the hospital for four months, but ended up right back in the emergency room after Grace stopped breathing during the night.
"When we left the NICU, we actually left without her tracheotomy, which is just another airway for her to get more air in and out of her lungs," Williams said. "So when we left the NICU, she kind of got a little congested and with the congestion on top of the airway obstruction, which means her airways are really tiny. She actually stopped breathing in her sleep.
She said when that happened, Grace suffered from a brain injury, and from there she developed a syndrome called paroxysmal sympathetic Hyperactivity and also developed epilepsy and found herself back out PICU, which is a pediatric ICU. Grace now has to use her trachea to breath.
Williams spent most of her college days and nights in the hospital not only worrying about her daughter surviving throughout the night, but also passing her exams for school.
Taking care of a special needs child is already hard enough on parents, but Williams had to do it as a single mother after Grace's father left her because of her complications.
"Initially, he was involved but it was a lot for him to handle with her care and other things he had going on. So now, yes I am a single mother," she said.
Grace's conditions require her to have at-home care and therapy sessions every day and a team of doctors to help Grace’s transition as she overcomes certain diseases. Even though Williams has medical insurance and Medicaid for Grace, she said they still don't cover the cost for Grace's medical bills.
"Honestly my medical debt -- I couldn't even tell you. It's through the roof. It's probably more than my student loans, and I've been in school for quite a while," she said.
She's also been fighting postpartum depression, anxiety and mental breakdowns in the hospital.
Williams said her mother was her motivation, and encouraging her to push through and helping her though many days of depression, breakdowns and her anxiety. She said she was able to take three online classes through her master's program so she wouldn't get behind in graduating. She said it seemed as if Grace's conditions would worsen on the days of her midterms and finals.
"It was difficult. It seemed like her worse days were the days I had finals. Whether it was an emergency surgery she had to do or her vital signs weren't staying up or something always went wrong on days I had exams," Williams said.
She said her professors at UH were really understanding and lenient to the situation and gave her extensions. Williams said she gives thanks to the social workers at Texas Children Hospital for pitching in for her during the hard times.
There were times Williams said she wanted to give up and cried on a daily basis on days she thought they weren't going to make it.
"It was tough, but at the end of the day -- you do what you have to do for your child, regardless of the circumstances. That's any mom," she said.
Williams said school played a big part in helping her fight against postpartum depression because it gave her an outlet to get out the hospital and learn things she was passionate about.
She said her faith and positive thinking helped her fight those dark days.
"I don't see how I made it though, but of course, nobody but God. He was there and he never left our side. He was there through all the things she was going through and to hold me up when I felt shattered. There were days I didn't even feel like getting out of bed," Williams said.
She said the depression allows you to think that there's no way out of the situation you're in, but that is not true because of God. She said negative self-talk was toxic, but she had to switch her thinking to positive self-talk to get her through.
Williams said moving to Houston was the best decision for her and Grace. She said the Texas Children's Hospital is a teaching hospital and they will train you to make sure she knew exactly what she was doing at home with Grace. It was a big difference from hospitals in Dallas, she said.
Williams said she looks forward to her daughter's future and progression to walk, talk, reach her full potential and to just be happy.
She said her goal is to enter into the medical community because she has fallen in love with the whole process of being supportive and coping through the process.
"I want to be there for families who have to go through these same things and who are being thrown into these situations with no prior or medical experience. It can be overwhelming -- and I really want to be there to make sure they have the resources they need and have someone to talk to when they need it and networking within the community," Williams said. "I want to be there for people like me, who didn't have a clue what was going on."
She said she works part-time in helping children with autism, ADHA, mood disorders and neurological differences. Williams said she loves what she does and the kids are a great help -- genuine, kindhearted and innocent. She said she hopes to work full-time in the future, even though she knows that transition can be difficult in finding nurses to take care of her while she is gone, but she loves her team of at-home nurses now.
Grace currently is being fed through a tube but loves eating sweet potatoes and going outside. Even though they love outside activities, Williams said people would make her feel uncomfortable by staring at her daughter.
"I would rather people ask, 'Hey what's her condition, is she OK?' or say something. When people would stare it makes it so awkward. It gives me a lot of anxiety about taking her out, and I'm actually just now getting to a point of getting comfortable being out and about. It makes it easier because she has her trachea and wheelchair, which lets people know she's not normal -- but what is really normal," Williams said.
She said she also enjoys Grace being outside and to explore the world around her, which makes her more comfortable because she's new to the special needs community. Williams said you just have to be comfortable with who you are and what you are and know that there is no normal.
Williams said she thanks Grace for making her a better person all around.
"Grace, I really just want to say, thank you. Because you really changed my heart completely. I use to be one of those people who would stare and wonder, 'Oh my gosh, what's wrong with that person,' or whisper and make smart remarks and stuff or make people uncomfortable with their disability.
"And I'm on the other side of the page now -- so like I said, thanks Grace for literally changing my heart and my life. People say all the time how kids change you, but that's an understatement. Like I said, she really has soften my heart, completely -- open my eyes to a while other world, and to learning how to accept people for who they are. That's the main thing, just thanks."
Williams advised other parents of special needs children is just to be confident.
"Negative self-talk is really detrimental, its self-defeating and as long as you challenge that negativity and stay positive, you can make it through it," she said.
"Just like you can talk into a bad mood, you can take yourself out of it. You can talk your way through finishing a degree, through school, finishing school, you can talk through having a bad day. You can talk your way through anything. Make sure you are feeding yourself positive energy."
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