A Reason to Fight
Four-year-old Mila wants to be a doctor when she grows up, so it’s no surprise that’s her favorite thing to play with her mom, Maya.
“Mommy, let me take your temperature,” Mila says as she pulls out her toy thermometer and puts it in her mom’s mouth.
Maya is happy to play Mila’s patient. Mila is her motivation to make it through all of life’s challenges. Everything she does is to help Mila achieve her dreams and grow up to be successful and independent.
But for now, Maya just wants Mila to focus on being a kid.
When the headache started, Maya was busy balancing being a mom to Mila, working full time and finishing her final undergraduate project at Lindenwood University.
At first it was just a nuisance, but it went on for two weeks, and the pain intensified. Soon, her vision became blurry, and she started losing sleep.
“It felt like somebody was drilling into the top and the side of my head,” Maya remembered. “I never experienced anything like that and don’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
The doctors ordered an MRI, and the results were the last thing Maya wanted to hear: She had a brain tumor. They began to run tests to determine what was causing the tumor and how to treat it.
“There were lots of labs, lots of blood draws,” Maya said. “Going to a doctor two, three times a week, on top of doing my undergrad and trying to take care of my daughter and work on top of that.”
Still, Maya pushed through to finish the semester and then started working toward her graduate degree. Even though she was experiencing excruciating pain day in and day out, she never stopped to reconsider finishing her degree.
“I was determined, and I didn’t want anything to stop me,” Maya said. “When Mila was born, I wanted to change my life. I knew that education would be the most important thing, and I wanted to show her how important education was. So through all of it, I just had to keep pushing.”
The doctors determined that the tumor was benign, but because it was pushing against her pituitary gland and affecting her optic nerve, she’d need surgery. After surgery, she’d have seven weeks of recovery, and she wouldn’t be allowed to work or drive.
Maya’s mind raced with uncertainty. Would the surgery work? How would she afford to go without a paycheck? How would she be there for Mila while she was in recovery?
And, more importantly for Maya, how would Mila react to the major change and stress in their lives? Mila’s whole world would be shaken, and Maya knew that she had to do everything she could to keep Mila feeling secure and confident during the transition.
A Second Family
Thankfully, Maya knew she could rely on United Way supported Cornerstone Center for Early Learning to bring comfort and security.
The community at Cornerstone rallied around Maya and Mila. When they found out about Maya’s surgery, they surprised her with a full scholarship for Mila to continue attending school.
“I didn’t know how I was going to pay. I had to stop working, and we still had to eat,” Maya said. “So them being able to provide a scholarship for tuition was amazing. I never would have expected it; I never would have asked.”
Cornerstone’s flexible hours made it possible for Mila’s grandmother to drive her to and from school while Maya was recovering. Mila also received breakfast, lunch and a snack each day, which was a huge financial relief.
“They became like a family,” Maya said. “Yes, my life was being disrupted, but there was no reason for hers to be disrupted. The transition was really important because she’s still growing. I didn’t want to cause any stress on her to interrupt her learning or cause some type of behavioral problem. I’m thankful they were there.”
During Maya’s surgery and recovery, Mila continued to thrive at Cornerstone, and school became a major source of security for her. Relieved, Maya was able to focus on getting back into their routine.
“If it wasn’t for United Way and Cornerstone, I would not have been able to successfully recover through my surgery because I would have been worried about how I was going to pay her tuition, having enough to pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads,” Maya said. “It was a stressor that I didn’t have to go through.”
After her long recovery, Maya returned to work, received a promotion and finished school to earn her graduate degree in criminal justice administration.
Maya’s doctors were not able to remove the whole tumor during surgery, so Maya will need to undergo more treatments in the future. While her prognosis is uncertain, Maya knows that Mila will always have a soft place to land at Cornerstone.
“She wants to be a doctor. If I don’t tell her she has limitations, she can be whatever she wants,” Maya said. “I want her to be an independent woman and know that regardless of what’s going on, we’ve always got a reason to fight, whether it’s a headache or whatever challenges you may face.”
Emily (Becherer) Gearhart is a proud native St. Louisan, writer and lover of stories in all their forms. Faced with a captivating question, she will research her way down a rabbit hole and emerge with words that educate and inspire. You can probably find her taking in a musical, bingeing through a new podcast series, exploring the trails at local parks or curating her extensive library of Spotify playlists.