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December 12, 2018

Grad conquers hurdles, sets sights on medicine

Sarah Cushion is going to be a doctor someday.

She doesn’t yet know what medical field she wants to pursue or where she’s going to medical school (although she hopes it’s Florida State). Those details will sort themselves out in the near future after she graduates from Florida Gulf Coast University on Dec. 16 with a B.S. in biology and a minor in chemistry.

But make no mistake about it: Sarah Cushion will be a doctor because she won’t be denied. Consider that:

  • Neither of the North Fort Myers High graduate’s parents nor any of the four other siblings in her Cape Coral family have a college degree, but she will. “They’re so proud,” Cushion said of her parents. “They’ve never been to a college graduation. This is a really big deal for them.”
  • After a comparatively slow academic start (by her standards) her first two years — mainly due to circumstances beyond her control that we’ll get to shortly — Cushion finished with a 3.7 grade-point average, capped by a string of straight A’s her final two years. “Academically, FGCU has enabled me to explore things I’m truly interested in … and also taught me to get out of my shell,” she said. “When I first came here, I was almost anti-social.” She is especially grateful for the chance to work in undergraduate research with Dr. Lyndsay Rhodes, assistant professor of biological sciences, on the toxicity of stilbenes (chemical compounds) as a cancer treatment on the embryos of zebrafish, which are used as model organisms.
  • As a student who had to cobble together academic scholarships, grants and part-time jobs at PetSmart and as an FGCU tutor to get the higher-education ball rolling, she’s resourceful and resolute in her work ethic. “I loved working at PetSmart because I got to take care of the animals,” said Cushion, who’s part of a household that includes three dogs, two cats, five birds, two bearded dragons and a tortoise.
  • Cushion’s PetSmart gig ended this past summer when she began a part-time job at NCH Health System, which she describes as a “great experience for shadowing” emergency-room doctors and nurses in action. She’ll now work with NCH full time for at least a few months as she goes through the interview process for medical school. And while her intended medical specialty is still up in the air, Cushion said she seems “drawn toward oncology. People say, ‘But that’s so sad, so terrible,’ but there’s something about it that fascinates me. Every time I see a patient with cancer, something shifts me closer to them.”
  • Concerning her role as a College Reading & Learning Association-certified tutor with FGCU’s Center for Academic Achievement, Cushion served as a peer mentor who helped fellow students navigate through complex subjects such as chemistry and biochemistry, showing an ability to connect with others and simplify complex material. “When you help people and teach them things, you are also establishing that knowledge better for yourself,” she said. “Then you start building relationships with students, and it’s neat to realize the influence you have.”
  • Most impressively, she has done all this — managed to get through college as an A student and put in more than 30 extra hours weekly tutoring, working in a pet store and shadowing ER doctors — while dealing with those aforementioned “circumstances beyond her control.” Those circumstances would be two autoimmune diseases: Sjogren’s syndrome and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which leave her with dry glands, aching joints and chronic fatigue. In fact, Cushion’s own rheumatologist once told her to forget pursuing a high-stress, labor-intensive medical career with her health conditions. “I was heartbroken,” she said. But a study abroad trip to The Bahamas with about 10 other FGCU students in summer 2017 that started out with the frustration of not being able to snorkel with her classmates ended with her doing just that. “By the end of the trip, I got the confidence that I could do whatever I want,” she said.
Sarah Cushion has served as a peer tutor in FGCU’s Center for Academic Achievement. Photos by James Greco.

Cushion’s confidence is quite evident to Gail Mishler, tutoring services coordinator for the CAA. “In spite of her financial and health struggles, Sarah is always optimistic, cheerful, kind, helpful and an exceptional peer tutor and role model,” Mishler said. “Her students respect and admire her, and share how much she has helped them accomplish their goals at FGCU. She works exceedingly well with diverse students with an array of learning needs.”

As for reaching her goals despite her health issues, Cushion — an otherwise typical young adult fond of relatively unhealthy cheeseburgers and fries who recently saw the film “Bohemian Rhapsody” twice because it’s the story of her favorite band, Queen — looks at her personal challenges this way:

“These are manageable things,” she said. “People have gone through a lot worse. This isn’t a good enough excuse for me to not do the things I want to do.”