Surah Healey ’23 succeeds and graduates despite health adversities
Starting college is stressful enough with all its attendant challenges. Living away from home for the first time. Increased study load. New friends. And new surroundings. Add to that list a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, compounded by—not one—but eight surgeries. It was all too much for Surah Healey, whose freshman-year experience had no resemblance to the collegiate life portrayed in those glossy recruiting materials.
As a baby, Healey was diagnosed with a congenital Ureteropelvic Junction (UPJ) obstruction, a condition where blockage occurs at the junction where the ureter attaches to the kidney. She underwent several surgeries as an infant before her condition finally stabilized in high school.
In the spring of her high school senior year, the California native was involved in a four-car collision that would imperil her health. She suffered a sprained back and severe whiplash, limiting her movement and possibly aggravating her UPJ.
“I felt this chronic numbing pain on my right side so I went to see my doctor,” says Healey, a Ho‘oulu Scholar. “He told me the accident could be the reason for my pain, and prescribed some medication.”
Healey says because of her high threshold for pain, she ignored the consistent aching when she first arrived at Chaminade … that is until she could no longer. One early morning at 1, the discomfort became so unbearable that she knocked on her roommate’s door and told her she had to immediately go to the emergency room.
“I was told it was a bad urinary tract infection (UTI),” Healey recalls. “I was given some medication and sent home.”
The throbbing abated but quickly returned. So in January 2020, Healey would require surgery—the first of eight—to insert a stent in her ureter, between her kidney and bladder. In the meantime, the Bio-Chemistry major kept up with her studies as best as she could. With summer break approaching and COVID restrictions in play, she decided to return to California until the fall.
While home, Healey suffered another two medical setbacks. The stent that was first inserted needed to be replaced—twice. “Then in October, I had my fourth surgery because my ureter had slipped,” says Healey, with tears welling up in her eyes. “And in December, I was informed by my surgeon that my right kidney needed to be removed.”
Hospitalized for a week, Healey was unable to walk. She couldn’t laugh. She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t eat. She wasn’t allowed visitors because of the pandemic. And she could barely talk.
“When I lost my kidney, I didn’t think it would be so painful because of my tolerance for pain,” Healey says. “But I was so wrong. Recovery was excruciatingly painful. It was something that I’ve never, ever experienced in my lifetime.”
By now, she was completely behind in her coursework, and relegated to online learning because of the pandemic. Mentally and physically struggling, Healey sought the advice of professors Jolene Cogbill, Ph.D., and Chrystie Naeole, Ph.D., on how to stay on track with her academics.
“They were really helpful,” Healey says. “They arranged for tutors to help me catch up, but I was still forced to take an incomplete in some of my courses, which I would have to make up if I wanted to graduate.”
After five surgeries and a lost kidney, Healey thought she could now focus on her studies, and that the worst of her medical problems was behind her.
Another three surgeries would be required: one in the spring of 2021 to repair an umbilical hernia, probably brought on when her kidney was removed from her navel; a second in May 2022 to treat another invasive hernia; and the third this past January to remove kidney stones.
“By October 2021, I was totally depressed,” Healey says. “After the first hernia surgery, I was limited to what I could do for three to six months. And then two to three months later, I was told I had another hernia, but I had the option of not having surgery.”
Her mom Donna, though, had other thoughts. Although she supported her daughter’s decision to forgo the second hernia procedure, she was afraid that Surah’s hernia would one day rupture and lead to sepsis, which is a life-threatening medical emergency.
“I just started as the president of the Scrubs Club and became the vice president of the Fitness and Adventure Club in May 2022,” says Healey, of the same time she learned about her second hernia. “I didn’t want to have another hernia surgery, but I understood the risks, and decided to have the surgery.”
Like the Greek god Sisyphus, who was condemned to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again once he reached the summit, Healey’s persistent struggle against her medical ailments seemed futile. Told by some to just quit, Healey became more resolute, stronger and braver.
“Each time someone would tell me that I wasn’t going to be able to do this (graduate),” says Healey with a voice of determination, “it would just make me fight even more, telling myself ‘Girl, you got this.’”
In May, Healey will walk with her fellow Class of ’23 graduates, proving that perseverance and personal belief do indeed matter. Her advice to them: “Live everyday like it’s your last. Be Brave. Be Humble. And Be Kind.”