Health challenges didn't stop grad's college dreams

Leah Eggan didn't just have classes to worry about at GCU. She also battled through numerous surgeries to remove tumors. She graduated Monday with a bachelor's degree in Psychology, attending her Commencement ceremony virtually, and is applying to occupational therapy schools.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Psychology major Leah Eggan, who graduated from Grand Canyon University on Monday, was a competitive dancer who knows about aches and pains and powering through them. 

So when she felt a gentle pain in her left leg the summer before her freshman year of college in Wisconsin, she brushed it off.

She didn’t think much of it, either, when she slipped at her cousin’s wedding that September and felt a shooting pain in her leg.

When the pain hadn’t gone away well into the fall semester, she chalked up the soreness to what doctors had told her it was: Must be a simple strained hamstring. A pinched nerve. A torn muscle.

It wasn’t until after Thanksgiving break that she knew something was wrong. Her leg suddenly gave out while walking back from class, and by the time finals rolled around, it had swollen so much that the nurses at the school health clinic decided to do an X-ray.

That’s when everyone saw the tumor in her leg.

Eggan, who was initially diagnosed with cancer, later found out her condition wasn’t cancer but a fast-growing tumor called an aneurysmal bone cyst tumor.

By the time she transferred to GCU her sophomore year, she had gone through a painful surgery to remove the growth – a surgery that left a hollowed-out space in her distal femur, which doctors filled with a follow-up surgery.

Eggan was wheelchair-bound for much of her time on the GCU campus.

She was hoping for sunnier prospects in Phoenix and didn’t hesitate moving thousands of miles away from her home in Minnesota.

“I was sold within the first two minutes,” Eggan said of her decision to come to GCU after a campus tour. “I definitely, immediately, loved the interaction of the students ... everyone’s so happy here.”

Not that she also didn’t love the science program and was amazed by the University’s cadaver lab.

Although she was majoring in psychology, Eggan was thinking of becoming an occupational therapist. It was something she considered even before her health issues, having worked as a personal care assistant when she was in high school and being amazed by the occupational therapists who treated the special needs students she cared for.

In her heart, she knew GCU was where she was meant to be. She found a sense of community here that she hadn’t found anywhere else.

“They’re the nicest people I’ve ever met. It’s kind of funny, but I’m from Minnesota and everyone says ‘Minnesota nice,’ but then going to Grand Canyon − no, this is way better,” she said.

She spent the summer between her freshman and sophomore years buying a fresh warm-winter wardrobe for Arizona. She was so excited to make the big move.

Eggan hopes to help others who are wheelchair-bound.

But just four days before starting that new chapter in her life, Eggan learned three new tumors had grown in her femur bone.

“That was a little intense. My first day of school, just moving down to Arizona, I had to tell all of my professors that I had to leave in two weeks to have another surgery."

She stayed in Minnesota for a week to recover, and although it wasn’t enough recovery time and although she would be in a wheelchair, “I wanted to finish school,” she said.

So she returned to campus, delved into her studies and capped her first semester with all A’s. She blossomed outside the classroom, too, serving as president of the Occupational Therapy Club.

Then the clouds rolled back in. While on Christmas break back in Minnesota, Eggan felt a radiating pain in her back and returned to the doctor.

“My tumors had spread to my lungs,” she said.

She fell so behind in her schoolwork after surgery for her collapsed lungs that she made the difficult decision to take the semester off, though she wasn't deterred from returning to GCU.

“My junior year … that’s when everything was still really bad in my medical life but everything in my school life changed and it was amazing.”

Dr. Mark Wireman

One of the classes she took was Mark Wireman’s BIO 201 anatomy and physiology class in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology. Eggan was one of two juniors in the mostly freshman-level class.

“I was the oldest one by far. Another awkward thing is I’m sitting here in this wheelchair and was pretty closed off just after having a whole other batch of tumors,” she said.

At first, her classmates didn’t want to approach her.

“I ended up meeting almost all of my friends in that class,” she said. "At first, I could tell they didn’t know what to say to me being in a wheelchair. But honestly, after two to three weeks, they became my best friends. I have an electric wheelchair and they have longboards and they would hold onto my electric wheelchair and we’d make a huge train around campus. It was hilarious.”

Then just three weeks after starting her junior year, tumors spread to Eggan’s lungs again and another surgery followed.

She was so behind in her classes that she decided to organize a study group.

Eggan said she couldn't have made it through her time at GCU without her supportive professors and group of friends.

“We kind of built this really cool group, helping each other out for that entire semester,” she said.

Many of the friends she made in that anatomy and physiology class decided to sign up for Wireman’s BIO 202 class together.

It was during her junior year, too, that the tumors would continue to return – five in the span of four months in her femur, patella and soft tissue. She decided on chemotherapy treatment to try to shrink the tumors while she completed her junior year, returning to campus for the second semester while on chemotherapy and in a wheelchair.

That time in her life was a blast, she said: "My friends were amazing," and so were her professors.

“Dr. Wireman ... he’s the most supportive professor ever,” she said, though she couldn’t stop talking about all her professors.

“The professors at Grand Canyon are a different breed. They’re so willing to go above and beyond."

She remembered how they reached out to her and asked if they could pray for her. "I never experienced anything like that before. That kept me going a lot.”

Eggan turned in much of her final work for her junior year just before leaving campus with the rest of GCU's students because of the COVID-19 shutdowns.

But it wouldn't be an uneventful quarantine. Her lung collapsed for a third time, and she returned to the hospital for another surgery to replace her femur with a metal rod and to replace her knee.

Eggan is now tumor-free and walking again. She is looking forward to the next chapter in her life.

After battling 17 tumors, she is tumor-free, has started walking again and is ecstatic to have graduated, though because of the pandemic and her health struggles she finished her senior year online and attended Commencement virtually.

“She is one of my top students in the last few years,” Wireman said of Eggan. “I am very impressed to see her excel, even with such a challenge put upon her. Her persistence shows her dedication and her drive to achieve her goals.”

Going through all that she’s been through, Eggan said she was inspired by the occupational therapists who helped her and is applying to occupational therapy school.

She’s so grateful to GCU for offering her a way to finish her degree online.

“Of course, I have bad days,” she said, but she leans on her strength in God. Her favorite passage, from Psalms 91:9-11:

If you say ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.

She also has leaned on her family of friends and professors at GCU.

“I definitely was happy with my decision,” she said of coming to GCU. “I love Grand Canyon.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


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