As a survivor of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) with an acquired brain injury, Sydney’s Jessica Mason was not exactly expecting to top the class when she decided to attempt an Open University art course in 2008 just “to see how I cope”.
Knowing that some people express concern about experiencing “chemo brain” after high dose treatments, for her it was even more farfetched was the thought that she would one day graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
But in a credit to Jess’ resilience and willpower, in November 2011 she graduated from Curtin University of Technology with her BA (Art). She has since commenced a Master of Art Therapy degree through
The University of Western Sydney.
Jess was diagnosed with ALL at the end of her first year as a vibrant young Australian living in London in 2005. She was 23 years-old. As treatment had to commence immediately, returning to Australia was not an option, so the entirety of her chemotherapy treatment protocol was conducted in a North London hospital.
After eight months, six rounds of chemotherapy, 15 doses of cranial irradiation therapy and one broken relationship, a seemingly innocent cough one morning developed into something all the more sinister as the next few days passed.
“A common fungal spore, ‘Aspergillus’, had taken advantage of my chemotherapy-weakened immune system and snuck into my lungs, from where the opportunistic infection spread to my brain,” explained Jess. “I was in an induced coma, in my hospital’s Intensive Treatment Unit for two weeks.”
When sedation was weaned after two weeks and Jess did not start responding to requests from medical staff and family, her medical team estimated she had only a 5% chance of survival.
Her father was called to fly over to London from Sydney to “say goodbye”.
It was a frightening and emotionally shattering time for all of Jess’ loved ones.
Jess spent two months back on the hospital’s Haematology ward, where it very quickly became apparent that brain damage had occurred. In November 2006, she was transferred to a Neuro Rehabilitation Hospital in South West London.
“The hospital terrified me, but what scared me more was being broken, so I spent the next three months working as hard as I possibly could to try and rebuild some sense of the person I used to be,” said Jess.
“When it just as quickly became clear that the person I used to be was gone forever and that I was never going to get her back, I began working towards an improved version – a Jess 2.0, if you like.
“I had to re-learn all the basics, how to breathe on my own without mechanical assistance, how to sit holding my head upright without using a head rest, how to talk and walk and think – how to become fully independent. This did not come all at once.”
In June 2007, a wheelchair-bound Jess flew back to Australia with her Mum. Since then she has been focused on regaining independence with the dedicated help of her parents, friends and new Australian medical team.
“At first I could stand and walk, with crutches, only very short distances,” she said. “The first few months were full of medical appointments and day-time television.
“However, the infection had not damaged my brain enough for me not to recognise boredom – so when my mum suggested I take on an Open University subject, just ‘to see how I cope’, I was eager for anything that would be a productive use of my time.
“At that stage, I had not envisaged where that first unit would take me.”
Once Jess had finished her first painting unit, with “fairly decent marks”, she did another, then another.
“For the first half of 2008, I completed one basic arts subject per
13-week OUA study period,” said Jess.
“Slowly gaining confidence by the second half of 2008, I increased my workload to two art subjects per OUA study period – which was classified as full-time study. It was at this point that I registered to do the Bachelor of Arts (ART) with Curtin University of Technology through Open Universities Australia.”
With the ever-enduring assistance of her Dad, with whom Jess had moved in after her Mum returned to the UK at the end of 2008, she worked tirelessly through the next three years, building knowledge and confidence, and finished her degree in November 2011.
In October 2011, while completing the last major components of her Bachelor of Arts (ART), Jess applied for entry into the Master of Art Therapy offered by The University of Western Sydney.
Jess said that back in 2004 before her initial diagnosis, she had read about Art Therapy and found the concept exciting.
“Then during my treatment, I actually found it therapeutic to create artworks on my laptop computer whilst unable to leave my hospital room,” she said.
A few weeks after Jess submitted her application, she was invited for an interview. The following week she was offered a place in the Master of Art Therapy commencing in March 2012 – for the next two years.
Jess is excited by the idea of climbing the academic ladder and of achieving goals that some said would be impossible for her.
“While I continue to self-rehabilitate and while medical and surgical interventions continue, I honestly believe, as someone who beat leukaemia and an acquired brain injury, returning to study was the greatest thing I could ever have done,” said Jess.
“Damaged brain cells had started to re-connect as I completed my bachelor’s degree.
“My self-confidence has skyrocketed and I am actually starting to look further and further ahead into a future that once dark, is brighter now than I could ever have imagined.”
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