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Aneurysm, Memory Challenges Can't Stop Leadership Student

Aneurysm, Memory Challenges Can't Stop Leadership Student

Two days before New Year’s Day 2000, Paije Fauser’s life changed forever.

The 21-year-old college senior had led an active life to that point, earning a softball scholarship to East Central University in Ada and winning a conference championship, despite suffering from breathing issues, bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis throughout her life.

But the pain she felt in her head that day quickly resulted in seizures as a massive aneurysm ruptured in her brain. She flat-lined twice while being transported to Oklahoma City for treatment. The operation that followed successfully repaired the damage, but in the process, Fauser lost not only her right-side peripheral vision but also the ability to create new short-term memories.

“I was 88 credits into my bachelor’s degree before my aneurysm, moving back home to Oklahoma City to recover and trying to figure out what I was going to do,” Fauser said. “My life had been completely flipped upside down. I had no hair. It was traumatic.”

Now, as she completes the last of the coursework of her master’s degree program in organizational leadership with the College of Professional and Continuing Studies, the current director of the Office of Academic and Student Services for the College of Allied Health at the OU Health Sciences Center appreciates the adversity she’s had to overcome to get to this moment.

“I feel like my aneurysm was yesterday and 22 years ago at the same time,” she said. “There is no way 22 years ago that I would have thought I would be here finishing my master’s degree.”

Finding a New Normal

Paije in hospital after aneurysmAfter the aneurysm, it took more than a month before Fauser woke up enough to gain a clear understanding of what had happened. Physical therapy helped her to walk and regain her balance, but as trying as that was, the realization that she has no short-term memory was a much larger obstacle to overcome.

“I have my long-term memory, and I can tell you things that happened 25 years ago at school or at home or on a basketball court, but as soon as I start talking to someone and they tell me their name, it’s gone,” Fauser said. “That part of my brain is not there. I joke with people that I’m not as bad as the girl from the movie 50 First Dates. She has short-term memory, but she can’t make new long-term memories.”

Since short-term memory is needed to remember how a sentence or conversation began or to manipulate information in order to perform a task or remember a process, Fauser had to learn new ways to take in new information and be able to recall it later.

“I have to to be able to apply it in some way,” she said. “If I can apply it to something, if I can make some kind of connection with it, I can remember it. When it comes to names, if I have someone else in my long-term memory that I can connect them to or that has a similar name to them, I can remember that person’s name. If it’s for more serious things, like things I do for my job or for my coursework, I just have to really get into it and start making connections all through it, so I can move it over to my long-term memory. There’s a lot of repetition.”

After recovering from her aneurysm, Fauser started working as a secretary in the Admissions and Records office at the OU Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City. The following year, she also learned why she had suffered from breathing and lung illnesses for her entire life when she was ultimately diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

“It went misdiagnosed in me until I was 22,” she said.

Fauser married her husband, Ryan, in 2003, and despite continued health and fertility problems, the pair welcomed daughters Jenna Kae and Jolie Ann in 2008 and 2013, respectively.

Through it all, the fact that she had never completed the bachelor’s degree she started before her aneurysm never quite left her mind.

“I started working for the College of Allied Health about five years after my aneurysm,” she said. “It was part of the inspiration for returning to finish my bachelor’s degree. I saw these students doing it, and I thought, ‘I can do that.’ My boss and mentor was always lifting me up and always making me a better version of myself, pushing me and challenging me in great and positive ways. My confidence kept building. My husband had just finished his master’s degree, and I was ready to do it.”

Creating New Goals and Memories

Fauser earned her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies from OU in Spring 2010.

"I wanted to be that example, that mom, that my daughters can look back to when they have trials and tribulations in their lives."

“In some ways, going back to school as an adult gives you not a better reason, but a different reason for getting an education,” she said. “I want my girls to be strong, independent women who know they can reach whatever goal they set.”

In order to complete her coursework, she had to be more deliberate with information and spend more time with it to absorb it and remember it.

“It really made me a studious student,” she said. “I’ve gotten better and better at it since I first went back to complete my bachelor’s degree. Listening to lectures through Canvas, I would have to pause, write out what the professor said or my thoughts around it or other things that I needed to connect it to and then hit play again. It takes me at minimum twice as long as the average student to get through that information.

“In my coursework, I make a connection by applying it to what I do in my day-to-day work, so I can move that new information over to my long-term memory. I can’t study for a test the night before and then take it because I don’t have that short-term memory. I have to really learn the material inside and out. It was hard, but I’m a fighter, and I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”

"What I learned in this program was absolutely priceless! The courses that I have taken have translated to my everyday life here in Allied Health and what I do in organizational leadership. I literally use it every day. I have become a better listener, especially being a manager of employees."

The most difficult part of returning to school was simply learning how to balance her work life and home life, while trying to take care of her family and her health.

“Going back to school with work and family, and a disability, when you pile all of that together, it could easily make someone not want to do it,” she said. “But I wanted to prove that I could, and I wanted to be that example, that mom, that my daughters can look back to when they have trials and tribulations in their lives.”

The desire to pursue a master’s degree eventually began to build, and she began work on her master’s degree in organizational leadership in Spring 2017.

“I knew how a graduate education was going to impact my career,” she said. “I knew I needed more education to be a better employee and to do what I wanted to do. I saw the benefit of my leadership courses specifically, how these courses were going to push me and make an even better director and employee in student services than I already was.

“What I learned in this program was absolutely priceless! The courses that I have taken have translated to my everyday life here in Allied Health and what I do in organizational leadership. I literally use it every day. I have become a better listener, especially being a manager of employees. The importance of listening was spoken about in a lot of my courses — really listening to our employees and processing what is said before reacting. I haven’t sold any of my textbooks back because they are references that I’m going to use forever.”

Helping Others to Pursue Their Dreams

Paije at workAs the director of the Office of Academic and Student Services for the College of Allied Health at the OU Health Sciences Center, Fauser believes she is exactly where she can do the most good for the students she serves.

“A lot of times when I talk to a prospective student, what makes them want to go into a health profession is something that a loved one has been through,” she said. “They watch the difference that a health care professional makes in their life, and they want to follow those footsteps.

“I have experienced almost all of the professions in this college as a patient, so what better place for me to be than where I can inspire students to be able to help people like me, to become part of professions that have helped me through the years.”

Fauser takes her role as a leader very seriously and plans to continue striving to become a better version of herself.

“I want to become a better director, a better employee than what I am right now,” she said. “I plan to keep on learning. I want to take what I’ve learned at OU and help others become better versions of themselves, as well. I want to be at that level to inspire other people to do what I’ve done. I’ve been able to do that over the years with prospective students, and I’ve been able to share my story a few times, and that has inspired them to follow their dreams into the health profession that they were coming to see me about. That’s the most rewarding thing ever.”

With just a few weeks remaining before she graduates this December, Fauser is grateful for everyone who has helped her to achieve a goal that 22 years ago she could never have dreamed would be possible.

“I’m proud to be a Sooner,” she said. “I’m proud that I’ve committed my entire working life to OU. I feel like I’m going to be the proudest grad walking across that stage. I’m so excited. I’m going to try not to cry. I have so much support from family, friends and co-workers who are friends and bosses who are friends. I think I’ll have a pretty good crowd there cheering me on. I’m ecstatic!”

To learn more about the College of Professional and Continuing Studies’ undergraduate program in organizational leadership, graduate program in organizational leadership, or for information about additional online degree programs for working adults, visit pacs.ou.edu/degrees.

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Myk Mahaffey

Michael Mahaffey holds degrees in journalism and psychology. He is a writer and editor with more than a decade of experience writing for print and digital publications, including award-winning coverage of the rodeo industry. In his spare time, he writes fiction, in addition to tinkering with graphic design and photography.