When Daphne Simmons climbs on stage this month to accept her master's degree, she might be thinking back 25 years to her last semester at Northwest Classen High School, when she learned to walk again.
Since those days when her life was in jeopardy, Simmons has raised a family, found meaningful work and received a couple of degrees. But she never would have made it, she said, without the support of her family and friends, care from her nurses and a promise she made to herself to get an education and use it to help others.
Simmons stopped breathing on Jan. 28, 1987. She had been admitted to the hospital two days earlier, in labor prematurely. A reaction to medication caused her lungs to fill with fluid, and shortly after telling her mother she felt like she was drowning, she lost consciousness.
She survived, and so did her son, but for six months she remained in the hospital, regaining consciousness and then her motor skills. The doctors gave her a tracheotomy, and over the course of her stay she received seven chest tubes and a central line.
“When I give my testimony and give praise to God, it's real. It's truly real,” she said.
Six months in hospital
Simmons needed only a few more credits to round out her final semester as a senior at Northwest Classen in Oklahoma City. It seemed manageable even after she learned of her pregnancy.
But when she was admitted to the ICU, she had a much bigger challenge than memorizing Oklahoma history. There were nine other occupied hospital beds when she arrived. Each of those patients died.
Even as she began to recover, living off machines in a hospital was tough.
“Come April and May, you can see the sun out, but you're confined to this room, this glass room,” she said.
Val Henderson remembers the pain as she watched her daughter and young grandson, William, cling to life.
Henderson had moved to Oklahoma from Kansas a few years earlier, and her two daughters were her world. She stayed in the hospital day and night.
“I quit my job. I didn't have two pennies to rub together,” Henderson said. “I made a bed out of two plastic chairs.”
Friends would drop by to sit with Simmons. Her best friend, Felicia Jones, was there almost daily. Jones said she skipped class and caught a city bus to the hospital.
Simply having a friend from school in the room was comforting, Simmons said.
“I couldn't talk because of my tracheotomy, so she would just watch television with me or rub my arms and legs with lotion.”
The nurses arranged for her to receive tutoring in the classes she was missing. She wrote her answers on a chalkboard board until the tutors learned to read her lips.
On graduation day, rain was pouring as an ambulance took her to a crowded auditorium. Deland Dooly, one of her nurses, walked her across the stage.
Striving for a degree
At home there were new challenges as she took over raising her son while still on oxygen and working to regain her strength.
“I had to literally teach Daphne how to walk again by picking her feet up and putting them back down again,” Henderson said.
In 1989, she enrolled at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City but left before graduating to focus on raising her two children. After moving to Houston, Simmons set a goal to get an education.
“The promise I made to myself was to obtain my B.A. before my daughter graduated high school,” she said.
She earned an associate degree in 2005 and went to work on a bachelor's degree the next year after the family moved to Hampton, Va. She took a job working with welfare recipients but found little satisfaction there.
She wanted a job where she felt like she could make a difference, and she found that at the Hampton VA Medical Center, where she works with disabled veterans, helping them apply for benefits. When she completes her master's degree, she hopes to become a substance abuse counselor in the same center.
Learning to serve
The need to help others was a seed planted during her upbringing, Simmons said. Her time in the hospital made that seed grow.
“How could you not want to give and do something for someone else?” she said.
Toiyan Thomas, her sister, is a registered nurse at a hospital in Delaware after serving in the military for 11 years. Henderson said she asked Thomas why she became a nurse, and she said it was because of what she experienced in the hospital while Simmons was sick.
Simmons brings her experience to the table when she meets with injured veterans. One of her pet peeves when she was in the hospital was when someone would tell her everything would be all right when they hadn't experienced it themselves, she said. Although she never served in the military, Simmons draws on her suffering to empathize with her clients.
Now she hopes that by getting her master's degree she can send a message to other teen girls that in the face of a hopeless situation, perseverance and patience pay off.
How could you not want to give and do something for someone else?”