Cancer survivor sustains others with her grace and humility

On CampusFall 2009

With grace and humility well beyond her 23 years, Hannah Olson has positively impacted family, friends, and classmates with her tenacious spirit. She is determined to serve others with a passion that only a second chance in life can bring — and a contagious smile.

It would be easy to skip over Hannah Olson’s childhood and fastforward to Fall 2004, her first year at Mount Mercy. It was during this year and the next three that she would drop out of Mount Mercy, survive lung transplant surgery, battle cancer, undergo grueling chemotherapy, lose all of her hair, and eventually reenroll at Mount Mercy as a healthy college student. These experiences would ultimately lead her to discover her calling in life.

But skipping ahead to 2004 would whitewash Olson’s struggles as a child with cystic fibrosis, a disease that causes the body to produce mucus that is extremely thick, making it difficult to expel it from lungs and other organs. Many of the 30,000 Americans living with cystic fibrosis are susceptible to infection and pneumonia, and rotate in and out of hospitals for treatment. Living with the disease takes its toll on a person — especially a child — and their family. Her older brother, Andrew, also has cystic fibrosis.

Olson’s childhood was full of happy events — camping trips, family vacations and movie nights. But Olson’s destiny was shaped by the steady stream of doctors’ visits, the daily back poundings to help relieve mucus build-up, and the 20-minute breathing treatments.

“We brought the children up to be as normal as possible,” says Olson’s mother, Claudia. “When we went on camping trips we’d have to take along all the pills and treatment, but we tried to make it seem like this was just what we had to do; other families had to do other things.”

As the children got older Olson’s mother and father readied them to handle the challenges they would face as adults. “We tried to make them conscious of their responsibility,” says Claudia. “We knew they would have to be responsible for taking care of themselves, and a good routine at home helped prepare them for that.”

Even as a child, Olson exuded optimism and perseverance. “She always had this ‘can do’ spirit,” recalls her Mom. “Her attitude was always, ‘This isn’t going to beat me down — I’ll try it and if I can’t do it that’s okay.’” It was with this frame of mind that Olson enrolled at Mount Mercy, even as she felt a twinge of uncertainty regarding her health. “I think she knew she wasn’t at 100 percent, but she was determined to go,” says Claudia. “It was a little scary to send her.”

‘Home on the hill’

During her first year at Mount Mercy, Olson began experiencing complications to her existing cystic fibrosis when she caught the seasonal flu. She began losing weight and had difficulty breathing, forcing her to withdraw from classes and return home. When she did not improve over the course of a few months, doctors began considering a lung transplant. “When you have cystic fibrosis, transplant surgery is always a possibility, but you think it’ll never happen to you,” says Olson. Like most cystic fibrosis patients, she had struggled with declining lung function for many years.

She began to lose energy and enthusiasm, confined some days to sitting in a recliner watching movies and missing activities her friends were enjoying. At her lowest point her mother remembers her daughter telling her, “I just want my smile back.”

As her condition worsened, she moved to the top of the lung transplant waiting list. Olson underwent lung transplant surgery on February 17, 2006 and woke in the hospital to discover that she had healthy pink skin for the first time in a long time — indicating that oxygen was flowing well through her body. Even though the transplant was successful, Olson’s ordeal was far from over. The anti-rejection medication she took in order to keep her body from rejecting the new set of lungs came with a long list of possible side effects, one of which was cancer.

Olson re-enrolled during Mount Mercy’s Winter 2007 term, but by the beginning of the spring semester she began to feel poorly. She was soon diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and began chemotherapy in May. “My doctor said that having a lung transplant is like trading one disease for another,” she says. “And it really is.” Olson endured the grueling treatment for five months, letting her brother Andrew shave her head when she began losing her blonde hair.

Chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer has been successful, and Olson recently celebrated being cancer-free for two years this September.

She is a stand-out student in the social work program, and also serves part-time as a student ambassador in Mount Mercy’s Admission Office. In addition, Olson is in the process of completing field training at St. Luke’s Hospital and has already completed fieldwork at the Domestic Violence Intervention Program.

Empathy, not sympathy

Social work students are a special breed — passionate about justice, committed to service, and eager for the opportunity to advocate for another’s needs. Olson’s background as a survivor of such rare circumstances has equipped her with vision, strength and determination. Coupled with her training as a social work student, Olson fulfills the calling that took shape so early in her life — to help others.

“Hannah has great capacity for empathy, and her experiences have really underscored that characteristic,” says Associate Professor of Social Work Joni Howland, who first met Olson as a freshman and has watched her grow as a young woman and a student. “She is caring and compassionate, and she accepts people where they are in their own journey.”

Empathy is an important attribute for every social worker, and Olson’s perspective on how to view and treat others facing difficult situations is sharper now that she has lived it herself. “I’m more aware of empathy now, instead of sympathy,” she says. “When you have empathy you recognize how the other person is feeling. Sympathy can too often be mistaken for pity, which you don’t want to convey.”

Her ability to empathize was fully realized while she was working at St. Luke’s Hospital, where she is doing field experience for her social work requirement. Olson was able to talk to a patient about undergoing an organ transplant, providing a connection that the doctors themselves could not provide. “No one else could do that because they didn’t have that experience,” says Olson. “I understood the perspective of the patient a little better.” Working at the hospital has fortified her desire to pursue a career in the social work field, preferably in a hospital setting, guiding others as they go down a path that is all too familiar to her, and helping them find strength they did not know they had.

‘Makes it all worth it’

When a young girl from Pennsylvania contacted Olson, she was able to offer special insight. The girl, struggling with a decision to have a lung transplant, was looking for guidance. “I was able to walk her though it and to help someone else in their decision,” recalls Olson. “Being able to help others through difficult situations has been the best thing to come of all this.” Olson is grateful to not only be able to help others through difficult situations, but also to inspire those around her to reach out and touch people’s lives. “I’m glad my story helps people realize that you can save a life,” says Olson. “You are alive and can help others in so many different ways.”

Howland agrees that Olson has a unique ability to impact those around her in a tangible way. “She can demonstrate her empathy with others who are facing difficulties — even if they are not the same as hers,” she says. “She’s been a role model for all of us.”

“I have no idea how she does it, honestly,” says Olson’s friend and fellow social work student Amy Rosauer ’10. “We all have hard things we go through, but Hannah shows us that you just have to do it and get through it. She never uses it [her health] as an excuse.” Rosauer recognizes the joy that Olson feels when she is serving others. “I think she gets a lot out of helping people, because so many people have helped her,” says Rosauer. “This is her way of giving back. But knowing Hannah, she’d probably do it anyway…that’s just her.”

While she normally does not seek out ways to tell her story, Olson is open to sharing if someone will benefit from it. “If my story helps someone else then I’m willing to tell it,” she says. “I’m glad it can give a little inspiration to everyone, even if they are just going through a hard time.”

These days, Olson’s signature smile has returned as a permanent part of her expression, and it’s hard to argue why. “I think mostly she’s happy to be here today,” says Rosauer. “There was a point she might not have been.”

“She is here for a deeper purpose,” says her mother. “She makes me see that I can do things I didn’t think I could before, because she is so willing to try anything.” Olson’s spirit has given her family a precious gift, the realization of what really matters in life. “Every day is a blessing to be alive,” says Claudia. “Take advantage of these moments. Don’t waste them.”

Throughout the doctors’ visits, hospital stays, tests, surgeries, and chemotherapy, Olson managed to fight off the normal feelings of anger and depression, focusing instead on how her experiences can help others traveling the same path. “There was a moment when I realized that I had to go through it all. I wasn’t quite sure why God was putting me through it, but I knew it would help others,” says Olson. “That makes it all worth it.”

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