Turning the Tassels

June 1, 2017

A Faith Journey

God uses the struggles in life to shape us into the people He created us to be. The Class of 2017 has many stories to tell about surmounting the obstacles and beating the odds along the road to earning a degree. The Liberty Journal celebrates all of our graduates who have stood firm in their faith through life’s trials and serve as an inspiration to many others to pursue their dreams.

Master’s grad heads to med school less than a decade after hearing she would never walk again

Hannah Thompson marched into Williams Stadium with thousands of her classmates for the main Commencement ceremony. She also walked across the stage at the Department of Biology & Chemistry’s degree presentation ceremony to receive her Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences, a year after earning her bachelor’s degree from Liberty’s pre-med program.

And this fall, she will move on to medical school, attending Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Each of these steps are significant milestones for Thompson, especially after being told nine years ago that she would never walk again.

“I remember that moment where the doctor was sitting there, looking at my family saying, ‘She is not going to walk again, she is going to be like this forever. Let’s just make her comfortable and realize this is how her life is going to be,’” the North Carolina native said.

At age 12, Thompson was a normal, active girl until one day she found herself screaming from ankle pain. The pain progressed, spreading through her right leg. She had to be pulled out of school and homeschooled. After several tests and misdiagnoses, she was ultimately diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), a neurovascular disorder that affects the cardiovascular and central nervous systems and causes the brain’s pain signals to overreact to stimuli. Symptoms include severe pain, extreme skin sensitivity, muscle atrophy, and decreased blood flow.

Thompson began a series of treatments, including nerve blocks, epidurals, and high-powered medications, none of which were successful. At one point, Thompson was taking 18 pills a day. She had trouble sleeping. She was confined to a wheelchair. And the pain was constant.

“Wind would bother (my leg),” she recalled. “If a pencil shaving fell on my leg, I could tell you exactly where it landed, it was so sensitive.”

While family, friends, and her primary care physician continued to pray for a breakthrough treatment, Thompson had to face the fact that her condition might never go away.

“There were definitely moments when I said, ‘God, why me?’” she said. “I vividly remember sitting in my (hospital) room by myself, saying out loud, ‘Lord, if this is how I am going to be, then I am still going to serve You and I am going to use this for good. If I get better, then I am going to use this and pursue medicine, and if I don’t, then I am going to use this situation to talk about how You are still faithful even where I am right now.’”

At age 15, Thompson moved to a Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia with her mother to enter an experimental program.

“It was eight hours a day of intense physical therapy and occupational therapy — with no pain medication,” Thompson said. “The idea was to force your body to hurt more than your brain can process and hope that your brain will restart a new pain signal.”

But Thompson never finished the program because she got injured about five weeks into therapy and needed knee surgery. The surgery, it turns out, was the cure.

“When I woke up from surgery, all the pain was gone,” Thompson said. The explanation, she was told, was that her body was restarting its pain signal because of the trauma of the injury.

Looking back, Thompson realizes how those painful years shaped her. Growing up, she thought she would become a teacher, like her mother. Now, she wants to use her experience with RSD to better relate to patients as a doctor.

“I just remember being sick and thinking that I wasn’t going to get to do these things,” she said. “Now, to take another step toward something the Lord has called me to — it is just incredible to think that I am at that point.”

Waterskiing accident grounds aspiring pilot, but new career is on the horizon

As far back as he can remember, recent Liberty University graduate Cameron Row wanted to be a pilot. He pursued his goal with passion, soloing a plane at age 16 and earning his private pilot license at 17. Row, a Lakeland, Fla., native, then came to Liberty in 2013 and joined the School of Aeronautics, where he remained on the fast track to achieving his dream — he earned his instrument rating by the end of his freshman year.

But things took a sharp nosedive for Row just days before he planned to return to Liberty after summer break.

On Aug. 4, 2014, Row was waterskiing on a lake near Orlando when he lost his balance and fell forward, causing the ski to strike the back of his head. He blacked out for a brief period of time, during which a friend, who is a lifeguard, jumped from the boat and pulled him to safety. Row came to, with blood pouring from his head, and was taken to the hospital. He was almost released the same day with stitches and a concussion before a “just-in-case” CAT scan revealed that he had escaped death by a tenth of a millimeter. The force of the injury had caused a depressed skull fracture; the skull had shattered, and fragments pressed up against the brain. If one of the fragments had gone any further, it would have killed him instantly. Later that week, Row found out he had also broken two vertebrae and torn the oblique muscles on his sides. He underwent surgery to remove the fragments.

Despite the lingering effects of the recent injuries, Row opted to return to Liberty and begin his sophomore year, only missing the first week of classes for his recovery.

The pain was not the only fallout from the accident. Because of the head injury, which put him at an increased risk for a stroke, Row lost his FAA Medical Clearance to fly.

“It was hard; it felt like my dreams were shattered because that was the only thing I had ever planned on doing my entire life,” Row said.

He had given up on a career in aviation.

“I told myself, ‘If I can’t fly, I don’t want to work for the airlines,’” he said. “It was going to be too hard to be around aviation and not be up in the air. I would just be jealous of the pilots all the time.”

But Row had already secured a competitive internship with Delta Airlines working with flight operations the first semester of his junior year. Though apprehensive, he followed through on the commitment — and ended up “falling in love with the business side” of aviation.

As it turned out, Liberty was in the process of developing an aviation safety management program for non-pilots. The timing was perfect.

“Cameron met with us multiple times to help us develop this, even helping research courses to build a degree,” said James Mashburn, School of Aeronautics online chair and professor. “He was instrumental in pushing us to get this degree off the ground and is its first graduate.”

Row graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Aviation Administration with both flight and aviation safety management specialties, as well as a minor in business. He also earned the School of Aeronautics’ annual Airmanship Award, which recognizes the graduate who has most demonstrated the character, integrity, and discipline of an outstanding aviation professional.

“I couldn’t be more proud of him for sticking with it and keeping a positive attitude when I don’t think a lot of people would have,” Mashburn said. “He is still going to be used in aviation by the Lord in an awesome way. He is a trailblazer for this program, and I think that is going to be a mark for him his whole career. He is going to go out and change things.”

A Family Affair

Family relationships are valued at Liberty University, and it isn’t uncommon to find family members pursuing degrees at the same time — no matter what age. In the Class of 2017, there were 23 groups of parents graduating with their children, 51 pairs of married couples, and 48 pairs of siblings.

The stories below show that there is no stronger bond than the one between a parent and a child.

With support from LU staff member, graduate finds strength to continue degree after son’s death

Student advocate Leah Trent (left) with Hope Larson.

When Hope Larson walked across the stage to receive her diploma, she wore one graduation cap and carried another, in memory of her middle son, Ryan.

Larson enrolled in Liberty’s online program in 2013 to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Psychology with a Crisis Counseling concentration. Ryan joined her in 2015, taking psychology classes with a focus on addiction and recovery. He had gained victory over drug addiction himself and had big plans to help others.

“Ryan had such a heart for kids in the Myrtle Beach area who are dying from heroin overdoses and felt so called to reach them,” Hope said. “We had talked about opening a treatment center that ministered to addicts and their families.”

Ryan had only taken a couple of courses when he died unexpectedly at age 24 from a diabetic condition (he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 20). Hope leaned on her faith — and timely counsel and prayer support from Liberty student advocate Leah Trent (’12) — to complete her degree.

“Leah’s amazing,” Larson said. “She was my advisor and my God-sent rock. I would not have graduated without God and Leah. She played a very significant role, sending me cards when I needed to be encouraged and praying for me every day. She went above and beyond, and I will never forget her for the rest of my life.”

Trent, who presented a Liberty football jersey and helmet with Ryan’s favorite No. 13 to Larson during her degree presentation ceremony, said her role quickly turned from advocate to friend.

“I remember both of us crying and discussing her next course of action,” Trent said. “I encouraged her not to give up on her educational goals, as I knew they were important to her. I do believe that she can have a huge impact on many lives, and I know that she will be able to glorify God in anything that she does.”

Hope Larson has since endured many more trials. Soon after Ryan’s death, she lost her best friend to a rare form of cancer. She followed God’s lead to close the family’s photography studio in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and move to Maryland to become her parents’ primary caregiver; her mother was diagnosed with mid- to late-stage dementia three days before her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Even through the hardship, Larson continued her studies, using memories of her son as motivation. She graduated summa cum laude.

“My inspiration definitely exploded with Ryan’s inspiration, goals, and dreams,” she said.

Hope is one of the close to 6,000 graduates with military ties in the Class of 2017. Her husband, retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Bob Larson, now works as a civilian at the U.S. Air Force headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“She showed an amazing amount of commitment and dedication to completing her degree,” Bob Larson said. “The sky’s the limit for her. What I know from watching her go through this experience is there’s nothing she can’t do if she sets her heart and her mind to it.”

Mother and two daughters share special moment at Commencement

Vicki Ball with daughters Abigail (left) and Chandler (right).

Graduating with her two daughters in Liberty University’s 44th Commencement exercises made Mother’s Day weekend particularly special for retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Vicki Ball.

Ball, who spent 23 years as a military nurse and is now a residential professor and online director of the master’s nursing program at Charleston Southern University, received her Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), joining daughters Chandler — a former star pitcher for the Lady Flames’ softball team who received her Master of Arts in Public Policy — and Abigail, who completed her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a concentration in Financial Planning.

The family said that marching at the same Commencement was divinely orchestrated by God.

“I knew I would be graduating in four years, but my mom didn’t know her exact date for graduation,” Abigail said, adding that her sister likely would not have pursued a master’s degree had she not been injured at the start of her junior season and received a medical redshirt for a fifth year of eligibility. “God worked it out to make it even more of a celebration.”

Chandler was the first member of the Ball family to attend Liberty. She fell in love with the school during a softball prospect camp. She then received a scholarship to play softball for the Lady Flames and went on to set the Lady Flames’ program record with 162 pitching appearances. She earned her undergraduate degree in Communication with a specialty in Advertising and Public Relations in 2015.

Chandler worked as a field representative on the re-election campaign for Congressman Dave Brat (R-Va.) in October before starting her current position with the American Conservative Union in Washington, D.C., in January.

Abigail has worked the past two years as an office assistant for academic advisors and a tutor in Liberty’s Athletics department. Previously, she served as manager for the softball team during Chandler’s junior and redshirt junior seasons in 2014 and 2015. Both sisters traveled with the team on weekend road trips.

“It definitely helped having Abbie there with her,” Vicki said, noting that the support of the coaches was also instrumental. “Looking back, one of the best things that Coach (Dot) Richardson and Assistant Coach (Paige) Cassady did for Chandler was letting her work with the pitchers and motivate her teammates, even though she was injured and couldn’t play. They appreciated her leadership enough to make a place for her that entire 2014 season. I’m not sure if she would have gotten that level of support at a public university.”

Vicki and her husband, Jeff, would travel from their home in Charleston, S.C., to Lynchburg, Va., and as far as Florida and Texas to meet their daughters and teammates nearly every weekend during the softball season.

She was impressed with the Christian atmosphere the Lady Flames fostered at every game.

“To see them praying after games with the other team and to watch the girls be representatives of not only Liberty but of Christianity was pretty special,” Vicki said. “What Liberty has done for them has reinforced what we’ve tried to do in our home: help them develop a faith system where they put God and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ first in their lives so they can take that into whatever they do. Whether they’re in politics like Chandler or finances as Abbie will be, they will continue to be good examples and good role models, wherever they are.”

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