The senior class of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans gathered with family and friends for Baccalaureate Mass on May 22, 2017.
Guest speaker Colleen Faherty Stephens ’90 offered the Class of 2017 words of wisdom.
Colleen attended Sacred Heart since first grade and graduated in 1990. She went to Southern Methodist University for college and then graduated with a B.A. in Elementary Education from the University of New Orleans. After receiving her degree, she began her first teaching job in 1996 and then married in 1997. One year later, in 1998, she was diagnosed with cancer. For the past 19 years, she has dealt with recurring infections. Her leg was amputated in February 2017, and she is currently learning to walk again with prosthesis. She is the mother of two children and is active in 50 Legs, an organization that provides amputees with necessary care and prosthetics that they could not otherwise afford.
Good evening faculty, family, and the graduating Class of 2017. What a special and blessed time this is for you. Cherish it, imprint it on your hearts, and thank God he has brought you to this moment. Congratulations.
I was honored to be asked to come back to Sacred Heart and speak to you, humbled and proud to share my story with you—a story that has its roots here where I spent my young life from age five to 17. I stand here before you on a prosthetic right leg. In fact, it has only been two weeks—just 14 days since I walked for the first time with this leg. And it has been a journey of 19 years to get to this place—I cannot believe at times all I have endured to get here.
I was diagnosed with cancer at age 26. I had just begun teaching first grade, and my husband and I had just celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary. We have been married now 20 years in June. (He has truly lived his vows; I would not be here today without him.) A malignant tumor consumed half my leg from mid-thigh to mid-calf. I did the chemo, lost my hair, did the radiation, and felt sick. I did the 17-hour surgery to remove the tumor and save my leg.
For the next eight years of my life, I would be in and out of the hospital having a surgery or procedure every three months to save my leg and at times my life. You wonder, "How does someone endure every three months for eight years?" First, prayer. God has held my hand through all this, and I knew he would still be there, as any child of the Sacred Heart finds comfort in. And second, because you tell yourself that this will be the last surgery, this will be the one that returns me to the life I had with my husband, back to teaching first grade that I loved, traveling, living a normal life. This will be the last procedure, and then maybe I can help others who are battling cancer.
But it wasn't the last one. And then infections would come, and I would be back in the hospital. I was able to have a few healthy years and get pregnant with my beautiful daughter, Caroline, and then a year later with my handsome son, Mark. How blessed I was. Even though I had tragedy, God had given me two miracles. I remember learning here at Sacred Heart that Jesus knew me; I was carved in the palm of his hand. Through all this, there was a purpose for what I had endured.
So there would be a few more infections, and then finally six months ago, I had to make a tough decision, a decision that was always lurking about. I did not want my children, who are now ten and eight, to see me sick or suffering anymore. My husband and they deserved more. I wanted my kids to know there is nothing you cannot accomplish; there is no obstacle too big. Life can be puzzling, but do not settle—rise above. I had to amputate my leg to make me whole, and on February 22nd, that is what I did. My faith never wavered. Sacred Heart prepared me for this moment; we are women who are strong and confident enough to form our unique stories.
Through all the tears, the doubt, the desperation, the anticipation, and now the joy of a healthy future, I would not have changed a step. When I was first fitted two weeks ago with this leg, it was exciting and scary. I had been waiting 19 years for this moment. I had a vision of it in my mind, and I had family, friends, and my prosthetist cheering me on and telling me how amazing I was doing. "You are standing on two legs. That is great! Can you believe it?"
In my head, I was saying, "No, I can't believe this. It is hard. This leg is heavy. It is painful. Get it off." I actually wanted my crutches. I was good on crutches. They were safe, nineteen years of being off and on of them. I was overwhelmed. "How am I ever going to walk with that leg? Did I make the right decision to amputate? What if I can't do it?"
I felt like disappearing. So I prayed to Mater Admirabilis, and I calmed down. She would always see me through and give me strength. I remembered all I had endured to get to this moment. I really did not like these crutches anymore. I wanted to stand on two legs. So I practiced. Five minutes on treadmill, ten minutes on the treadmill, I walked around the kitchen, through the house, on the back porch, and then I was able to go to my daughter's softball game, my son's soccer game. I was able to stand and hug my husband, my kids, really anyone, as long as I was standing on two legs. Since then I have not looked back.
I know you ladies are experiencing or will experience emotions and feelings of doubt and fear as you embark on a new leg of your journey. You too have waited years for this moment, to walk out of the gates of Sacred Heart and become independent successful young women. And you have your own cheering squad, like I did. Be confident. Sacred Heart has taught you well to be strong, independent, smart, and faith-filled women. Whether in small or large ways, Sacred Heart girls make a difference. The triumph of your spirit will shine because it was formed here. Remember your sense of service. I, after 19 years, am finally able to help others through an organization called 50 Legs that helps others attain prosthetics and care even if they cannot afford them. I learned in Lower School from Matthew 25, "When I was sick, you visited me." You can help others through your own experiences and suffering. You can shine your light that was lit here at Sacred Heart for those in darkness.
Believe in the cliche, "There is nothing you cannot do," because I am living it. Every step I take is deliberate. Walking through my house is a journey; I have to trust that my leg and my faith will get me there. I trip, I lose my footing, and I fall. But I get back up. It is an ASH girl that gets back up, walks farther, walks prouder, and makes a difference in her world. Be kind to each other and most importantly to yourself. I was tough on myself at times because I was sick and unable to reach a certain goal in a certain time. If you live an honest, faith-filled life, you are right where you should be.
My 10-year-old daughter told me the other day how proud she was of me walking on that leg because it looks so hard. I know you will make your parents, your community, and your school proud as you leave Sacred Heart finding your purpose, living God's word, and truly exemplifying what it means to be a child of the Sacred Heart. May every step be deliberate and know with God's love you never walk alone.
**Translated and re-published with permission from ASH and the author.