NCC students navigated cancer and a pandemic to reach graduation

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Newly-divorced and a single mom, Stephanie Horvath enrolled at Northampton Community College in search of a new career path to support her son. Her choice of the diagnostic medical sonography program may have saved her life.

On Saturday, Horvath will be one of more than 700 NCC winter graduates celebrating their commencement in a virtual celebration. They range in age from 19 to 78 with graduates from 11 countries.

For Horvath, the celebration is the culmination of a two-year journey that includes a new career, cancer treatment and a global pandemic.

In the spring of 2019, Horvath’s lab partner detected something abnormal on Horvath’s thyroid during a routine ultrasound scan in class. Unsure what it was, they called their instructor over. Students had asked to learn the protocols for scanning the thyroid because it was popping up often in their clinical rotations.

“I remember her saying, ‘Steph, I don’t know if I am scanning the right thing,’” Horvath, 31, of Pen Argyl, said of her lab partner. “‘But yours looks really weird.’”

Their instructor told Horvath it was a thyroid nodule and advised her to get it checked out. Thyroid nodules are so common that 95% are nothing to worry about, but Horvath’s was suspicious given her age and the location on just one side, said Susan Davidson, the diagnostic medical sonography program director.

“In a young person you tend to worry it is one of the more serious cancers,” said Davidson, who is also one of Horvath’s professors.

NCC’s on-site doctor ordered an ultrasound that led to a biopsy, which came back positive for papillary thyroid cancer.

“It was a complete shock,” Horvath said. “… It is the most common type of thyroid cancer and it has the best prognosis.”

She’d been tired and gained some weight, but those were easily written off as a single mom juggling full-time school, clinical rotations and a job at Boscov’s. Her surgeon recommended removing her entire thyroid to be proactive, so Horvath scheduled her surgery over spring break so she wouldn’t miss out on class or clinical.

The surgery went smoothly, although it revealed the cancer had spread to a few of her lymph nodes.

“I had no idea it was there. If I had let it go how many more years, it could’ve spread further,” Horvath said. “I think I was meant to be in the program. It was just confirmation of that.”

Her doctor recommended radioactive iodine treatment, which she successfully completed over her summer break.

“She didn’t miss any time at all,” Davidson said of Horvath. “She didn’t complain about anything. We were there to support her and reached out to her regularly.”

Horvath was grateful her instructors and clinical providers worked with her to arrange her schedule so she didn’t miss classes or hours.

“She was one of those people who made sure things were running smoothly. She plans ahead. She doesn’t get behind on anything,” Davidson said. “She didn’t want her cancer to interfere with anything. She also was great at helping other students. She would tutor other students. I see her perhaps taking on greater leadership roles in her future jobs that she has.”

All of that, paired with her people skills, led Davidson to select Horvath as the classroom lab manager, a leadership role she thrived in.

“She’s very cheerful, she has a big smile and she has a laugh that everybody loves,” Davidson said. “She’s just a very positive person who laughs a lot.”

Horvath stayed positive throughout the program, but it certainly wasn’t easy. She selected sonography due to her interest in the medical field and enjoyment of anatomy classes.

“It was extremely hard, but I was just really motivated I think,” Horvath said. “Luckily, I had the support of my family, so my parents helped me with my son quite a bit. That was everything.”

Once in the program, she knew she’d made the right choice. She loved the close patient interaction and the diagnostic element.

“You are kind of trying to solve a puzzle, putting together symptoms with images and helping the doctor come up with a diagnosis,” Horvath said.

Coming back to school after completing cancer treatment, Horvath expected life to settle down a bit. Then came the pandemic in the spring of 2020, upending the last two semesters of her cohort’s ultrasound program. Like many parents, Horvath found herself juggling her learning with her son David, who is 5, at home all the time.

Hospitals halted clinical rotations from March until June as they struggled to get enough personal protective equipment for staff and limit unnecessary people in hospital buildings, Davidson said. At that point, students were spending a few days a week in their rotation, while the final semester is 40 hours a week, she explained.

“It threw us all for a loop that’s for sure. We figured it out as we went. A lot of our classes had to be moved online, which was very challenging, especially for our lab classes,” Horvath said. “Our teachers did their best and really did a good job trying to cater the program and still get us what we needed.”

Hospitals slowly started bringing some students back at the end of May, Davidson said, and St. Luke’s University Health Network took on more students who had not been enrolled in their system pre-pandemic when their prior clinical placements fell through.

“We lost four months of clinical time we would’ve had otherwise,” Horvath said. “When we got back into the hospital we got extra hours… and we were all able to graduate on time, which was a huge blessing.”

Horvath took her boards the first chance she got. The ultrasound program wrapped up in August and she’s now working at St. Luke’s University Health Network as a per diem ultrasound tech. She’s hoping to obtain full-time work with health benefits soon.

She’s grateful the college hosted a small pining ceremony for her cohort — seven students in all — in August when they completed the program.

“We were really lucky,” she said. “We were able to have a really small ceremony with immediate family in the auditorium and my son was able to give me my pin in the pinning ceremony. It was really, really special.”

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Sara K. Satullo may be reached at ssatullo@lehighvalleylive.com.