Brittney Massey left, shares a moment with her mother, Brenda Brown, following a special graduation ceremony Monday at Pitt County Memorial Hospital. Contributed photos.
(May 5, 2011)
When East Carolina University senior Brittney Massey marches in commencement exercises Friday with her classmates, it will be the second time she's worn her purple cap and gown.
The first time was Monday, in a special celebration that included her mother.
In a wheelchair, breathing from an oxygen tank and draped with a purple blanket, Brenda Brown smiled through her tears at her daughter's accomplishment.
"She's a fabulous young woman, and I hope everyone realizes that," Brown said.
After the ceremony, some cake and Coke, and hugs and photos with her children, Brown's husband, Norman, wheeled her back down the hallway of 3-West at Pitt County Memorial Hospital -- the cancer floor.
Brown was diagnosed in March 2010 with a small cell extrapulmonary neuroendocrine tumor. It's an extremely rare and deadly form of cancer that likely started in her liver. Doctors at first told he she had about three months to live. Treatments and her desire to live helped her exceed that prognosis. Dr. Timothy Fitzgerald, an ECU cancer surgeon, has helped coordinate her care.
Yet Brown's condition worsened, and a month ago she entered PCMH as a patient on the very unit where she worked 16 years as a nurse. She was not expected to live through the week. So, ECU and hospital officials arranged a special graduation ceremony for Brown to see her daughter receive her degree.
On Monday, in a hospital classroom, Brown's husband, her parents, her sister-in-law, her 14-year-old son, Drew, and other friends listened as remarks praised Massey's accomplishment: a bachelor's degree in elementary education. Many of those in the room wiped tears from reddened eyes.
"We know you're going to make a lot of children in a lot of classrooms very happy and make us very proud," said Dr. Vivian Covington, presenting Massey with her diploma. Covington directs the Office of Teacher Education in the College of Education. She and Associate Provost Chris Locklear led the ceremony.
Among those watching were Susan Kidd and Laurie Bullock. They went to nursing school with Brown at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson and later worked with her on 3-West at PCMH.
"She's the strongest woman I have ever known," said Kidd, now a clinical associate professor in the ECU College of Nursing.
"Never met a stranger," Bullock added. "Loves her family. Loves ECU Pirates."
The past year has been a difficult one for the family — especially Massey. When she learned her mother was sick, school was not her priority.
"I wanted to quit when I found out. I wanted to stay with her," Massey said.
Her mother disagreed.
"I said, ‘Brittney, no way. We've come too far to stop now,'" Brown said. "It's been a chance of a lifetime to see her fulfill her dream. I just hope we can find her a job out there," she added with a laugh.
Massey completed her student teaching this spring in a first grade classroom at Mount Energy Elementary School in Creedmoor. Ed Watson, the faculty member who supervised Massey's student teaching, praised her dedication to school and the children she taught.
"It was difficult for her on her internship while her mother was ill," Watson said, "but she handled it well."
Massey, 22, also married in January, moving up her plans a few months to make sure her mother could participate.
"We pulled together a wedding in three weeks," Brown said.
Now she's been able to see her daughter reach another milestone.
"Brenda's last goal to accomplish was to see Brittney graduate, and with the support from ECU and PCMH, that was made a reality today," said Teresa Wooles, a close friend and nursing administrator at PCMH.
Editor's Note: Brenda Brown died peacefully May 11 at home in Wake Forest with her family.
From left, parents Norman and Brenda Brown and daughter Brittney Massey.