Determined student fights life-threatening challenges
PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Ever since she was 17 years old, Robyn Maxey dreamed about becoming a teacher. Many teachers had positively influenced her throughout elementary, middle and high school and like them, she wanted to be a positive role model who provided children with fun, interesting learning experiences that helped prepare them for the future.
Maxey, a senior elementary education major at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville who grew up in Freeport, Illinois and whose family now lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, is well on her way to making her dream a reality, thanks to the educational and personal support that she received from UW-Platteville faculty. After three years of general studies, education-related coursework and hands-on teaching opportunities, she is looking forward to student teaching and graduating in spring 2020.
What most people – other than Maxey’s family and close friends – don’t know is that just a few years ago, pursuing a degree in elementary education would not have been possible for her. Few people know that she faced serious health challenges that not only threatened her dream of becoming a teacher, but her life.
In summer 2013, after a period of feeling nauseous, exhausted and weak, Maxey underwent a number of tests. On July 19, 2013, she was in the kitchen, making lunch, when the phone rang. When she answered, her family doctor in Freeport at the time told her to have her father call back. Immediately, she knew something was wrong.
After her father had spoken with the physician, he drove Maxey to the doctor. Maxey said the drive was very difficult. “I was in tears,” she said. “My dad stayed strong, through it all, and put on a brave face for me.”
Maxey was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer that affects white blood cells and bone marrow. From then on, life as she knew it changed. “I did not know how to feel,” she said. “I was confused, scared, calm and anxious, all at the same time.”
Over the next three and one-half years, Maxey spent more than 150 nights at the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. There, she was aggressively treated with chemotherapy and targeted drugs that specifically killed cancer cells as both an in-patient and an out-patient. The treatment caused nausea as well as neuropathy, from her feet to her knees and from her hands to her elbows. “I did not know what to expect with chemotherapy,” she said. “I knew that I was going to have to prepare myself for what was going to come next.”
During the course of her treatment, in addition to the side effects, Maxey experienced many health issues and complications, including a rare fungal infection in which her doctors gave her a five percent chance of surviving. When she was given the chance to “live out the rest of her life” at home or stay in the hospital, she decided to go home. Thankfully, a few months later, her blood counts were good enough that she was offered the chance to have a crucial surgery to remove the fungus. Even though she felt scared, she decided to have the surgery, and in April 2014, doctors removed her thyroid, the lower right lobe of her lung and her left kidney.
A number of other infections caused Maxey additional stress during this time, but she knew she could overcome them with the help of her “amazing team of doctors and nurses at the American Family Children’s Hospital.”
Decision to pursue education degree at UW-Platteville
By summer 2015, Maxey had recovered from her surgeries and was feeling stronger. More than ever, she was determined to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher, which she had had to put on hold while she was ill.
After researching several schools that offered education degrees, she chose UW-Platteville because it had smaller class sizes and a comfortable, personal setting. Once she began classes, she knew she had made the right choice.
“I enjoy the small campus because it has such a homey feel,” she said. “I have never felt afraid or intimidated here because it is such a safe, secure environment. I’ve made friends and close connections. Because the class sizes are small, I have had a lot of one-to-one time with my professors.”
“I love all of my education professors. Most are just as excited as my classmates and I are to be here. They are overwhelmingly nice and helpful, and they are always willing to do anything for us. They genuinely care about me and my future career. They have mentored me by providing great opportunities to grow, learn and teach.” –Robyn Maxey
She noted that emotional support and encouragement from her professors has been critical to her well-being and to her success. “I love all of my education professors,” said Maxey. “Most are just as excited as my classmates and I are to be here. They are overwhelmingly nice and helpful, and they are always willing to do anything for us. They genuinely care about me and my future career. They have mentored me by providing great opportunities to grow, learn and teach.”
Once professors knew that Maxey had been ill, they were happy to help her in any way they could. “They were always willing to help me with homework or any questions I had, and even give me extra time to take exams,” she said.
Maxey noted that while she did not want to be labeled as “sick,” she knew that without her professors knowing what was going on with her medically, they would not understand why she struggled with memorization and comprehension. “I had to learn and teach myself new strategies after going through such a rough time,” she said. “My professors were more than happy to help in any way that they could to make sure I succeeded.”
Cancer and health issues were not the only challenges Maxey had to face and overcome. Between 2015-2017, she was also in several serious car accidents.
In March 2015, as she was driving from a chemotherapy appointment in Madison to UW-Platteville, she dozed off, and her vehicle flew off a 40-foot overpass and landed in the median below. She was transported to the hospital, where physicians discovered that she had broken two vertebrae in her back and had a compressed fracture.
Then, in September 2017, she was in another car accident, this time while driving from La Crosse to UW-Platteville. In the head-on crash, when a pick-up truck turned in front of her, her car ended up in a corn field, and she broke her tibia and fibula and shattered and dislocated her ankle.
The two accidents hindered her ability to be in class, and she had to drop several classes. After the first accident, she took off a semester; after the second accident, she was able to return. When she was struggling with issues related to her illness, her professors were there to support her and encourage her. A number of them worked with her from afar so that she could work on her studies from home.
Professors note Maxey’s courage, strength, dedication to teaching
Maxey, who has now been in remission from cancer for two years, is thankful for the support and encouragement she received, and continues to receive, from professors and others who realize the difficult life experiences she has faced. Her professors acknowledge that Maxey possesses many qualities that make her special, as a person and as a future teacher.
“Robyn is a model of courage, strength and perseverance,” said Dr. Lindsay Hollingsworth, assistant professor of education at UW-Platteville. “She is an inspiration to me and others who get to work with her. As a teacher candidate, she demonstrates a high level of commitment to her work and the students she serves. The School of Education is better because she is a part of us.”
Samantha Charles, a 3/4 multiage teacher at Westview Elementary School in Platteville, welcomed Maxey to her classroom this fall as part of a UW-Platteville practicum course and was immediately impressed by her initiative.
“Robyn was quick to make positive and meaningful connections with our students and almost immediately felt like part of our classroom family,” said Charles. “She goes above and beyond her expectations. She comes early and stays late, has an eagerness to learn all that she can, and always wears a smile on her face. It is clear that she is passionate about this wonderful profession and has already begun touching the lives of the students here at Westview.”
Maxey said her favorite part of teaching is when she realizes that the students understand the concept she is teaching. “I love the lightbulb moment when the students fully understand the concept I am trying to teach them,” she said. “I like to see their personalities shine and watch how they meld in the classroom. At Westview, it is all about kindness. We ‘fill’ each other’s buckets instead of ‘dipping’ from them. We have morning meetings where we have conversations in circles about issues that are really important and affect children’s lives, such as bullying, etc.”
As she looks back on everything she has been through, Maxey acknowledges that the illness and accidents have taken a physical, emotional and mental toll on her.
Physically, though she is in remission from cancer, she continues to experience side effects of her chemotherapy treatments, including neuropathy in her feet, as well as drop foot. She also experiences discomfort and pain from the car accidents, including back pain and soreness in her ankle. She trips frequently and cannot jump or run.
Her experiences also have taken an emotional and mental toll on her, and she has sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. “I recognize that I don’t always need to feel positive, and I ask for help when I need it,” she said.
Maxey hopes to use her elementary education major as well as her fine arts and early childhood minors in her future classroom.
Despite everything that she has been through, Maxey always strives for excellence in all that she does, and she is excited and hopeful about the future. “Every day, I always try to be thankful,” she said. “These personal experiences made me want to be an even more positive and outgoing person. Look at what I made it through.”
When asked who inspires her each day, she quietly but confidently replied, “Myself. When I am having a rough day and I feel like the world is against me a little bit, I remind myself that I am okay. I am still here.”
Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, University Relations Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, firstname.lastname@example.org
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