2008-07-17 / Health & Wellness

Woman earns doctorate despite medical challenges

By Sophia Fischer sfischer@theacorn.com

DEDICATION- Oak  Park's Barbara Parkhurst accepts her advanced degree at CLU. DEDICATION- Oak Park's Barbara Parkhurst accepts her advanced degree at CLU. Studying for a doctorate is challenging enough, but Barbara Semel Parkhurst of Oak Park earned her degree at the same time she was undergoing multiple surgeries for a near fatal brain aneurysm.

Parkhust, 55, recently graduated from California Lutheran University with her health intact.

Parkhurst was gardening at home over Memorial Day weekend in 2007 when the aneurysm struck.

"My head felt like it exploded and I lost all movement in my legs," she said. "I couldn't walk."

Parkhurst yelled to her husband, who called 911. When paramedics arrived they thought the woman was having an anxiety attack because her vital signs were fine.

"I have a healthy history so it threw everyone for a loop," she said.

The educator and mother of two underwent surgery and spent two weeks in intensive care at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, came home for a week, and then returned to the hospital when she didn't feel well again.

She said it was the first time she'd ever stayed overnight at a hospital.

Doctors inserted a shunt into her head to drain fluid. She had a third surgery in October to improve an indentation on the side of her head where the initial surgery had taken place.

After the first surgery, Parkhurst couldn't drive due to double vision, but in September she returned part time to her job with the Oak Park Unified School District as a speech and language pathologist. By December she was able to work full time.

Her hair has grown back and she's healthy except for recurring headaches, which doctors believe might be caused by scar tissue.

Parkhurst had enrolled in CLU's fouryear doctorate program in 2004. She had completed her final research just weeks before the aneurysm occurred. Although her professors suggested she take an incomplete until her health improved, Parkhurst continued her studies.

A friend brought Parkhurst's laptop to the hospital and helped her prepare additional data needed for a dissertation titled "Cultural Proficient Leadership: Collaboration for Special Education."

"I never got an incomplete in my life," Parkhurst said. "I worked hard to complete everything and submitted on time."

"When I heard of her health challenges, my heart sank both for her health and well-being and my expectation that her studies would be (understandably) interrupted," said Dr. Randall B. Lindsey, a CLU professor and former interim dean of the School of Education. "Maybe due to Barbara's extensive involvement with special needs education throughout her career, she quickly found ways to accommodate her studies."

Parkhurst credits many people with helping her through the school and medical challenges: family members, friends, CLU professors,

"He's the reason I'm still here," said Parkhurst, who now describes the aneurysm as her "event."

When Parkhurst's husband, Jeff, was forced to return to work after staying at the hospital faithfully, friends took turns by her bedside. She also received support from her children, Rachel, 26, and Adam, 23, and her 89-year-old mother.

Parkhurst hadn't intended to pursue a doctorate. She had earned her master's in 1975 and wanted to obtain an administrative credential. But after speaking with a CLU dean, Parkhurst said she became "hooked" and enrolled in the higher education program.

Parkhurst traveled to Europe twice with fellow students and school superintendents to study educational programs in England, Norway and Denmark. She was unable to go to Australia because of the illness.

"There were so many innovative measures in the UK schools. Technology was soaring. Elementary schools had two technology technicians, SmartBoards and other equipment," Parkhurst said.

"I found the whole doctorate program to be an extremely rewarding experience," she said. "I feel that I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight into the field of educational leadership."

Parkhurst's goal is to work with special education students at the university level.

"It's one of the reasons I initially got excited about getting my doctorate," Parkhurst said. "I've been in special ed a long time. I'd love to help college students develop skills."

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