Army nurse never retreats

Perseverance: Bonnita Wilson is graduating at the top of her class despite repeated breast cancer surgeries.

May 23, 2001|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

Dressed sharply in her green Army uniform, Bonnita Wilson charged through life. A wife and mother of three, she slept only four or five hours a night, pumped 65 push-ups in two minutes and earned early promotions. She was a fast-rising star in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.

So when Major Wilson was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer just before she was to start graduate work at the University of Maryland School of Nursing two years ago, she did the only thing she knew how: She kept going and doing her best.

While pursuing her master's degree at Maryland, Wilson underwent two mastectomies, chemotherapy, radiation and four reconstructive surgeries. Along the way, she suffered a string of complications, including a massive hemorrhage. But she hid her illness, missed only four classes, and on Friday, she graduates with a 3.8 GPA, one of the top students in her class.

"I wasn't going to let cancer stop me from going to school," says Wilson, 36, who had another operation yesterday. "It was just something that I had to finish on time."

It's an attitude that has carried her through life. Growing up in Savannah, Ga., she worked hard in school, earned good grades and planned to go to college. She won scholarships, graduated cum laude, and then, according to those who worked with her, turned into a dynamo of a nurse, caring for the most critically ill patients. Even her foray into weightlifting four years ago quickly earned her top honors in the Armed Forces bodybuilding contest.

"I was a workaholic. I was hard core," Wilson says. "I was a soldier."

But this time, being tough meant going to school wearing oversized shirts to hide her bandages, trying to pay attention in class even though she was in pain from surgery or exhausted from chemo, and then driving back to her Odenton home, sometimes crying all the way.

For while she studied systems analysis, electronic medical records and other topics in Maryland's nationally known nursing informatics program, Wilson was also getting a raw lesson in living with illness. One question kept haunting her: Would she live to raise her children?

She had done everything that's supposed to keep breast cancer away. She ate healthy food, worked out daily, had her children when she was young and breast-fed them. But she still got sick.

Wilson first noticed the lump in the spring of 1999, but since she was breast-feeding her infant son Jordan, she dismissed it as a blocked milk duct. By Fourth of July weekend, though, she had landed in the hospital where she worked, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Lying in bed, terrified about the orange-sized mass in her right breast, she couldn't wait any longer for her pathology report.

So she wrapped her hospital gown tightly around her, padded over to a computer terminal and typed in her name.

"Abnormal cells," "poorly defined margins," she read, checking the patient information at the top and thinking there must be another Bonnita Wilson, on active duty, with her same Social Security number.

"I must have read it 50 times," she says. "I'm thinking, `This is a mistake.' " But it wasn't. She had two types of cancer - sarcoma, and a more dangerous, invasive cancer. Within a few days, she had a mastectomy, and two weeks before her graduate classes started, she had her first chemo treatment.

Eventually she had radiation, And, months later, when doctors thought they noticed something in her other breast, the decision was made to do another mastectomy. Then, in a rare, cruel twist, she got hit by almost every complication possible as surgeons tried to reconstruct her breast tissue.

At one point after the implants were put in, just before a summer exam, she felt a sudden pain and saw her chest begin to swell. Curled in a fetal position because of the pain, she was rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered she had lost two liters of blood. They had to remove the implant on her left side.

"I've never seen all of these things happen in one person," says her oncologist at Walter Reed, Dr. Alfred B. Brooks, who has seen hundreds of patients in his nearly 20 years as an oncologist. "This was trial by fire. I did say, `How much can she take?' " Wilson tried to balance academics and illness: Surgeries were scheduled for Fridays, so she wouldn't have to miss class. She didn't tell her professors, because she didn't want them to go easier on her. She used plenty of makeup, along with her buoyant personality, to make everything seem fine.

One professor said that when she looked out at her class, Wilson always stood out as brainy, engaged, creative - and never afraid to ask questions.

"She kind of instantly comes off as a shiny star," says Dr. Patricia Abbott, director of the informatics program at the nursing school, who estimated Wilson was in the top 4 percent of students she has ever taught.

But the sickness Wilson tried so carefully to conceal intruded on her academic life.

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