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Miracle on College Avenue

A very happy ending for this CSB student

November 23, 2010

By Mike Killeen

When family and friends raise a glass and make a holiday toast, Christine Erickson will join in and probably smile.

As well she should. Christine was a senior at the College of Saint Benedict in the spring of 2009 when - just weeks before her graduation date - she suffered a brain aneurysm and faced an uncertain future.

Through an "amazing" set of circumstances, hard work and great support, Christine is working on finishing her education and preparing to move on in her chosen field.

That should have happened in 2009, when she was getting ready to wrap up her college career. The native of Stillwater, Minn., was a good student and had participated in a study abroad trip to Galway, Ireland.

"Christine was making good, timely progress in completing her degree with a major in economics," said John Olson, professor of economics at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University and Christine's adviser. "She was in her final semester, finishing the last two components of the major requirements - the research capstone course and a subject area elective course."

But on March 23, 2009, everything changed.

"I've always had problems with migraines - always," Christine said. "The night before my aneurysm, I had a really bad migraine, I was vomiting and I couldn't see straight."

She fell asleep on the sofa of her off-campus apartment. In the morning, her roommate, Heather Akerson '09, got up earlier than usual to work at a campus job with Fine Arts Programming.

"I went downstairs, and I heard a really weird sound while I was coming down the steps," Heather said. "The sound was Christine struggling to breathe."

"Heather came down the stairs and saw me convulsing and unconscious," Christine said. "She woke up my boyfriend at the time, and they called an ambulance."

She was taken to St. Cloud Hospital, where doctors determined that an operation was needed. While on the operating table, she suffered a stroke and a seizure. The experts feared she wouldn't live. She was in a coma for over a week.

But survive she did, although the tough part was only beginning. She had to relearn motor skills, like brushing her teeth or feeding herself. Mind you, she wasn't complaining.

"Everything that happened with the aneurysm, the one word to explain it ought to be 'miracle,' " Christine said. "I'm very, very thankful. I'm thankful that Heather had to work that morning and that she found me. I'm thankful that my brain surgeon was hired only one month before I got there - otherwise I would have had to have been airlifted to Minneapolis, and they didn't think I was going to survive the flight. And, I'm thankful for the rapid recovery that I had."

CSB played an important role in her recovery. Jody Terhaar, dean of students at CSB, set Christine and her mom up in one of The Loft rental units in downtown St. Joseph. The school allowed Christine to participate in the 2009 commencement ceremony.

"The school has been wonderful," Christine said. "They let me walk at graduation. It felt good to be able to walk with the class. They provided the loft, and they sent me flowers. They were very good."

Christine said a big moment for her was when her birthday rolled around in September 2009. "I was really thankful to turn 23," she recalled.

"Her recovery was everything I was hoping for," Heather said.

To finish her degree, Christine is working on her senior thesis on how welfare reforms of the mid-1990s (the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families act) affected women's work hours. She's also working part-time as a salesperson at a department store.

"I have been in contact with the Academic Advising Office, her other professors and Christine to assist in arranging the steps to be taken to complete her academic work," John said. "I have been very pleased with everyone's cooperation, taking into account the circumstances of her recovery, in meeting and working with Christine toward finishing."

Christine hopes to someday teach economics at the high school or college level - much like some of her favorite economics teachers at CSB, including Professor Meg Lewis, Assistant Professor Parker Wheatley and Olson.

"I guess the biggest thing that I hope people get from my story is, when I had my aneurysm, I was ready to graduate. But things happen, and they usually happen when you very, very least expect them to - like a month before graduation, right?" Christine said. "But just know if that happens, you just don't give up, because every small step that you take will eventually add up."

We can all toast to that.