SALEM, Mass. (AP) - When Kathryn McKenna receives her degree from Salem State University on May 16, she’ll toss her cap into the air like the rest of the 1,629 graduates.
A few moments later, she’ll head down the street to Forest River Park with family and friends to hold a more personal celebration.
McKenna plans to release 50 balloons to honor her late parents, who met at Salem State. It will also mark the culmination of a long and difficult journey to achieving her college diploma.
At 59, McKenna not only earned her Sports and Movement Science degree nearly 30 years after first enrolling at the school. She also accomplished the feat two months after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
“I’m very grateful,” McKenna said. “It’s only because I’ve had the support of wonderful people behind me.”
McKenna completed two years at Salem State in the late 1970s but never got her degree. Over the years she has worked as a physical therapy assistant, a flight attendant, and personal assistant to Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan, among other jobs.
Two years ago, at the urging of her boss at Lahey Behavioral Health Services in Beverly, she decided to go back to college.
“It was on my bucket list,” she said. “And I wanted to honor my mother and father.”
Like any adult going back to college, McKenna had a full plate. She worked during the day, took classes at night, and cared for her mother on weekends.
Last summer, she noticed that she was having trouble swallowing and forming words. On March 2, with her sister and three brothers at her side, she got the diagnosis from her doctor- Bulbar ALS, an onset of ALS that destroys the motor neurons that control muscles in the face, head and neck.
McKenna said she thought briefly of quitting school, but decided to persevere. Because Bulbar ALS affects swallowing, she struggled to maintain her weight and her energy. In her speech therapy class, she had to make sure to enunciate her words clearly in order to be understood. As a Sport and Movement Science major, she had to do push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups.
McKenna missed only one class and will graduate with a 3.89 grade-point average.
“At the end of the day, she can barely walk and barely talk,” said her sister, Susan Munroe. “She’s absolutely amazing. Where does she get this energy?”
McKenna attributes her success to the support of her professors, fellow students and family, and to the values instilled by her parents.
When she got a 97.5 grade on her first paper in World Literature, she went to Forest River Park to the basketball court that is named after her father, Bob McKenna, a long-time guidance counselor and basketball coach at St. John’s Prep. She held the paper toward the sky and promised him she would be back when she had her diploma.
When she returns to the park on Saturday, she’ll release the balloons for both her father and mother, Elaine, who died on Sunday, Mother’s Day.
McKenna said she will continue to be able to walk. But with Bulbar onset, which affects about 30 percent of the people with ALS, she’ll eventually need a feeding tube and will have to decide if she wants to be put on a ventilator.
McKenna said she considers herself an advocate, not a victim. She has started an ALS Warm Water Bucket Challenge on Facebook urging the Food and Drug Administration to approve an ALS medication called GM604.
“I still have a joyful life a day at a time,” she said. “I still have so much love with my family. I live every day as a new day, and it is.”
Information from: The Salem (Mass.) News, https://www.salemnews.com
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