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PhD student beats the odds despite life of tumours and brain surgeries

Durbanville resident, Amy Martin, has had to overcome a plethora of challenges. Picture: Stefan Els

Durbanville resident, Amy Martin, has had to overcome a plethora of challenges. Picture: Stefan Els

Published Apr 7, 2022


Durbanville resident, Amy Martin, has had to overcome a plethora of challenges. She has only 75% of her left brain after multiple operations to remove tumours but this week, she stood among Stellenbosch University (SU) students when she graduated with her PhD.

Martin’s world was turned upside down in her teens when she was diagnosed with life-threatening brain tumours at the age of 14, 17 and 18.

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Never giving up and fighting back against all odds, she worked to complete her PhD in Ancient Cultures with her studies focusing on the notion of a female poetic tradition in ancient Greek literature.

On Wednesday, the 33-year-old received her degree.

What makes Martin’s achievements so remarkable, is that she only has 75% of her brain left after multiple operations to remove the tumours. She currently has four titanium plates in her skull, along with 16 titanium screws. The tumours also caused severe epilepsy and muscular damage that took her years to overcome.

"Being diagnosed with brain tumours during such an important phase in my life was very hard, both physically and emotionally. I had to deal with a lot of stress and trauma," she said.

While she admits to struggling in the beginning, she said at one point after a surgery, she could didn't have movement in her left arm and doctors told her she might never regain full movement on the left side of her body. She went for physiotherapy.

Martin said while in ICU, she watched people of all ages die and it gave her a new perspective on life and death.

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“My medical trauma often made me feel disconnected from others. I was too afraid to leave the house because I was so scared of having a seizure in public – which did happen. It was difficult, but I had my family to support me,” she said.

This support was vital for Martin, given that after the diagnoses and operations, things didn’t always go well in high school.

She experienced bullying because of her shaven head which left the massive operation scar exposed. She also suffered from severe epilepsy which caused damage and fear. “I was constantly afraid of the next seizure. They were extremely painful. My marks also dropped.

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“In the beginning, I kept wondering every time I potentially did something silly whether it was just me or if whether it was because of my brain tumour and the fact that 25% of my brain was missing. Luckily, I also had friends who pushed me to be better and who reminded me that this did not define me.

“In time I learned that it was part of my personality. It was a part of me. It shaped me to be who I am and forged my path to some extent, but it would not define me and it would not in any way dictate where I was going with my future. So, I just kept strong and reminded myself that I was still capable of doing whatever I set my mind to,” she said.

Thanks to this fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude, Martin finished high school and enrolled at SU to study languages and cultures. After obtaining her first degree, she went to South Korea to teach English for two years, and then came back to complete her honours and Master’s degrees in Ancient Cultures at SU. Having enjoyed her time in South Korea, she went back for another stint to teach English.

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“It was a wonderful opportunity to experience different cultures, learn new languages, and of course, to travel the world. And then I decided I wanted to pursue my PhD in Ancient Cultures,” she added.

Martin looks back at her time at SU with great fondness and says academia gave her back her power.

“I struggled to cope in high school, but at university I made new friends and became a part of the Stellenbosch community, where there was a lot of encouragement and support for me to follow my dreams. This helped me to overcome all of these challenges and to become who I am today.

“When I reached university, I felt almost freed in a way from the academic space at high school, because I could decide for myself where I wanted to go with my studies and what I was passionate about. And it was actually during my postgraduate studies that I really excelled. I pushed myself to be the best in my class every single time,” Martin said.

She said every time she scored top marks, it served as a reminder that she was still very capable of excelling in academia and that she could do this despite the brain operations and resulting trauma.

Having gone through these severe hardships as a teenager, Martin has learned to take it one step at a time and not to expect too many things of herself at once.

She said she is gradually building herself up and accepting her flaws and instead of focusing on those things that she hasn't yet accomplished, she rather tries to enjoy the things she has already accomplished.

Martin hopes her story will inspire people who might be facing similar challenges or who struggle to cope with life.

When not studying, Martin loves to put on her running shoes and go for a jog. She is also learning Korean and hopes to apply for teaching positions in South Korea. She would also like to travel more and visit the many ancient sites in Greece and Italy.