Imagine you’re a 20-something: you’re excited to identify your career path, find the love of your life, and plan for a family. Imagine, then, you are suddenly jolted from this path by illness. Imagine your doctors telling you that your life is never going to be the same.
A daily struggle becomes your new normal, but you fight and carry on.
“There is a difference between living and surviving,” said Catherine Helmuth, who battles an undisclosed illness.
And yet, with assistance, Helmuth walked across the stage during a commencement ceremony at Auburn Arena on May 6 to receive her doctorate in Business Administration from the Harbert College.
“At times, I’ve blurred the difference between living and surviving, but, living – truly living – allows for a little bit of joy to re-enter the day-to-day life,” Helmuth said. “During difficult times, I try to remember that joy is still within my grasp.”
What began as a corticosteroid treatment to suppress asthma produced life-threatening consequences that impact Helmuth’s mobility, bone strength, eyesight, and endocrine system.
Then there’s the pain.
“Terrible pain … every day,” said Helmuth. “It is unbelievable what we as individuals can do when we have to. None of us know our true strength until our backs are up against a wall. Everyone carries their own pain. We all have our battle scars. Mine just happen to be physical. My knees, hips and shoulders tell the tale. But it’s how you come back from your struggles that define you.”
Helmuth served as Graduate School Student Marshal for Auburn University’s May 6 commencement exercises. She attributes much of her success to Brian Connelly, Professor and Luck Eminent Scholar in the Harbert College of Business' Department of Management, and the support she received from her dissertation committee and the college.
"I am humbled to have had the opportunity to learn from such an eminent scholar," she said.
While under the mentorship of Harbert College faculty, her research was published three times. She also has two manuscripts under review and is working on six other research projects.
“I have written more papers than I care to think about from a hospital bed,” she said. “Because the doctoral degree in the PhD program was so important to me, I believe the Lord has not given me more than I could endure.”
Junior Feild, Torchmark Professor Emeritus of Management at Harbert College, taught at Auburn for 43 years before retiring in 2015. Among the hundreds who entered his classrooms, Helmuth stands out, he said. “What impressed me the most was that she possessed the attributes that most professors would love to see in a colleague,” Feild said. “She is very intelligent, passionate about learning, conscientious, and has an infectious enthusiasm about her work. She is a gifted writer and lecturer. She reflects the best of Auburn University.”
After earning an MBA from New Mexico State in 2012, Helmuth came to Harbert College to pursue her PhD and served as a lab instructor and assistant. She was originally hospitalized in January 2013 with a respiratory infection, which worsened pre-existing asthma. A year later and after asthma treatments, Helmuth’s health significantly deteriorated.
“What I thought was an unmitigated hell was just the beginning of a long journey that I did not know I had the strength to endure,” said Helmuth. “What the corticosteroids did to my body was unimaginable. While I’ve been blessed to have been cared for by some of the best hospitals and rehabilitation centers, the hospitalizations and surgical recoveries have been long.
“Before every surgery, I say the Lord’s Prayer as I go to sleep. Some of my surgeons will come in the operating room to see me off to sleep, but most of the time, I am laying in a very cold room without a familiar face. While the anesthesiologists and nurses are always very, very kind, that moment can feel a bit lonely. Saying the Lord’s Prayer gives me strength and comfort.”
Her medical journey carried her to a number of hospitals and treatment centers across the nation, including her hometown of Chicago, where she received a surprise phone call in 2014 from Bo Jackson, who also shared an orthopedic problem. Not only did Jackson provide her with an uplifting phone call – he directed Helmuth to his orthopedic surgeon.
“This is one of the best examples of the Auburn family,” Helmuth said. “Bo was incredible! He gave me his nurse’s phone number and within a week, or two, I was in his surgeon's office. Bo's surgeon is one of the top orthopedists in the country.”
Helmuth -- who likened Jackson to an angel -- said the surgeon not only completed two of her “major surgeries,” but also Bo’s referral “changed the trajectory of my care.”
Helmuth looks forward to pursuing a career, but believes it’s best to see how her body recovers. “We are waiting until my rehab progresses a little more,” she said. “My doctors know my goals.”
Until then, Helmuth will begin work this summer as a program assistant for entrepreneurship under Lou Bifano, director of Entrepreneurship Strategy for the Harbert College. The role will enable Helmuth to assist with the college’s Tiger Cage Accelerator and Incubator for student entrepreneurs, as well as other projects aimed at nurturing startups.
Helmuth looks forward to her professional future, life with Sebastien, and continued research. She believes anything can be accomplished through hard work and perseverance. “Individual strength is obtained through resiliency,” she added. “Everyone has a deep drive to succeed. Sometimes, in the face of adversity, we underestimate our resiliency.”
“After persisting through my medical challenges, this journey has allowed me to appreciate the amazing blessings in my life while instilling a sense of purpose. Our days here are limited and we only get one chance at this beautiful life. One chance to appreciate life’s amazing blessings.”
-- Photos courtesy of Auburn University Photographic Services