I didn't know what to expect from Nick Sandercock. All I knew is that he'd had his colon removed in a radical cure for a tormenting disease, and was going to graduate Lehigh Carbon Community College and the University of Pennsylvania in the same month.
Neither of these things made sense to me when I heard about them. I am medically illiterate and didn't know one can live without a colon. I am also a community college graduate and don't remember any opportunities for dual enrollment in the Ivy League.
Needless to say, I was disabused of both notions by Nick, an amiable 32-year-old from South Whitehall Township whose life experience has given him a deep appreciation of the value of living in the moment and pursuing ambitions with gusto.
"My stepfather says success is measured by the relationship between your butt and your seat," he said, when we met at LCCC Tuesday.
Nick has heeded that advice well, which is why he is on the cusp of this extraordinary double graduation and has been accepted to law school at Temple University.
The story starts in 1999. That year, Nick, a Center Valley native and graduate of Southern Lehigh High School, was a 19-year-old Juniata College sophomore majoring in elementary education.
He played basketball and had bulked his 6-foot-4-inch frame from 180 to 210 pounds through strength training. But one day he doubled over in agonizing abdominal pain and discovered blood in his stool.
Colon cancer, he thought. But when he told his mother, Kathy Candal, about his symptoms, she offered another diagnosis: ulcerative colitis. She was sure because she had it herself. It's an autoimmune disorder that inflames the largest part of the large intestine, the colon.
Nick was tested. His mother was right. She had been able to control her colitis with a change of diet, but Nick's case was aggressive.
"In six months I was down to 156 pounds," he said.
Steroids helped, but caused mood swings and other side effects. Still, Nick churned along. He left Juniata and entered Northampton Community College, but illness forced him to quit. Then he got a restaurant job, hoping to work his way into a position with health insurance. He married and had a daughter, Olivia, who is almost 7 now.
Nick worked his way to a management position in the home office of the Red Robin chain. All the while, he had limited success battling his disease with medication.
By 2009, he knew he would have to endure the last-ditch treatment for his illness — removal of the entire large intestine. His doctor told him he risked a ruptured colon otherwise.
In September of that year, he had the surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. He spent four months with his small intestine — the ileum — protruding from his abdomen. Then he underwent a procedure in which surgeons formed a pouch at the end of the ileum and grafted it to the rectum, creating a makeshift colon.
With that, Nick was cured. He returned to daily life with a gastrointestinal system that works at about 80 percent of the efficiency of a normal one.
Now, life isn't Disney, so the story doesn't end on that happy note. In 2011, his marriage failed. It was a dark time.
It was at this point that Nick's stepfather, Mario Candal, told him to go back to school. Nick heeded the advice, enrolling at LCCC as a communications major. He was humming along with a 4.0 grade point average when he saw a poster advertising a program to go from community college to the Ivy League.
Why not? He talked to a transfer counselor at LCCC, applied and entered Penn in the spring of 2012, carrying enough credits to qualify as a second-semester freshman. He chose a new major — English — and entered a new routine, traveling to Philadelphia for class every day and returning home to care for Olivia.
As he prepared to graduate Penn, he started to lament that he had left LCCC two classes shy of getting his associate's degree. "LCCC was the launching pad for the rest of my life," he said. So he back-transferred two classes from Penn to LCCC, satisfying his associate's requirements.
On May 14, Nick will graduate from LCCC with an associate degree in communications. Three days later he will graduate from Penn with a bachelor's degree in English. Olivia will be there — she wants to attend Penn someday to earn a doctorate in chocolate-ology — and so will Nick's girlfriend, Laura Krokus.
Nick said the best part is how happy his mother is about the whole thing. And I can attest that she is very, very happy.
"I love him to pieces," she said.
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