A Beautiful Mind

Andrew Engel didn't let a brain tumor stop him: After 12 years, he picks up his college degree tomorrow

May 23, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter


Andrew Engel has spent nearly 12 years in college, working gradually, steadily for the chance to utter that word. The moment came last week, when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County senior completed his final course requirements for a degree.

Graduation, scheduled for tomorrow afternoon at 1st Mariner Arena, was still a week away, yet as Engel walked across the campus of emerald grass and boxy buildings, he allowed the joy of accomplishment to consume him. That way, the moment would be permanently etched in his long-term memory, instead of becoming a feeling he knew he had experienced but could not recall.

A malignant brain tumor, discovered shortly after he began his freshman year at Rutgers University in 1995, robbed Engel of much of his short-term memory. His drive and intelligence, however, remained undiminished. That is why Engel, who lives in Ellicott City, is not only a degree candidate but an inspiration to many who have witnessed his odyssey.

"He was determined, very determined that he was going to do this," said Joyce L. Riley, associate director of UMBC's Health Administration and Policy Program and Engel's academic adviser.

A team of doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital that included Dr. Benjamin Carson removed the tumor in November 1995, but the damage it caused was so extensive that the doctors warned that Engel would likely never excel in a college setting.

Engel refused to accept that limitation. He asked his doctors to help him devise a new way to retrieve information from a brain that had become unable to retain significant amounts of it for more than a few minutes. They tailored a program that helped him prod information from his short-term memory reserves into long-term memory.

Engel enrolled at Howard Community College in 1997. Two years later, he transferred to UMBC, registering for no more than two classes a semester, taking his tests untimed, reading his course work aloud twice and hiring a notes-taker to bolster his extensive notes-recording regimen.

"It's surreal - I still can't believe it," said Engel of his coming degree in health administration and policy. He's 29 now.

"I go home and I feel like I should be studying. I'm watching TV and I'm like, `I can't be watching TV. I have to go and study.' I can't believe it, because I've been in school for so long. I feel like there should be another class coming up."

But there isn't. Instead, he is about to enter the working world, more than a decade behind those with whom he graduated from Columbia's Wilde Lake High School in 1995. That includes his identical twin brother, Jason, a lawyer who graduated from Rutgers and the University of Maryland School of Law.

The two had been inseparable throughout much of their childhood. Most people couldn't tell them apart until their teen years. That's when Andrew Engel suddenly stopped growing. Now 5 feet 8 inches, he is nearly a foot shorter than his brother.

At the time, Engel did not know that a brain tumor had damaged his pituitary gland, which secretes a growth hormone. During his freshman year at Rutgers, the tumor's impact soon became evident. Engel was eager to make a solid start in college, hoping for a 4.0 grade-point average. But not only was college much more difficult than high school, no matter how much he studied, he couldn't remember his course work.

"He would call home and say, `Everyone is so much smarter than I am,' and that didn't sit right with us," said Engel's mother, Eileen, a retired elementary-school teacher. "At the time, his older sister was there, too, and we asked her to help him. We thought that it was maybe anxiety or being away from home. She took him to the library to help him with one assignment and called me and said, `Mom, he can't remember one paragraph to the next.'"

Engel arrived at Rutgers in August 1995. A few weeks later, he began occasionally forgetting the names of his friends or his dormitory. He left school before the end of September. Then one day, while at The Mall in Columbia, he could not quench his thirst, no matter how much he drank.

His mother took him to a pediatrician. An MRI revealed a germinoma, the most common type of germ-cell tumor in the brain.

"I knew that it was likely a tumor, but I thought it would be benign, something that could be easily taken care of," Eileen Engel said, "but it turned out to be malignant."

Family history

It was a grief the Engels were becoming all too familiar with: Eileen Engel's mother had died of lung cancer the year before Engel's tumor was discovered. Engel's father, Hal, was diagnosed with early-stage chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 1996, though the disease has yet to worsen his health. Eileen Engel was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. She required chemotherapy, a mastectomy, then radiation.

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