In a time-honored rite of passage, Sarah Klos received her diploma in the sweltering heat Thursday afternoon, along with many of the 905 eligible students in the largest graduating class in Howard Community College's 39-year history.
But unlike students who knew their big day in black cap and gown was coming and were impatient waiting for it to arrive, she had good reason to wonder whether such a day was even possible.
Klos, who lost her short-term memory as a child after two debilitating strokes and delicate brain surgery, waged a fierce battle for nine years to achieve an associate's degree in general studies typically earned in four semesters.
Talk about keeping your eyes on the prize.
"I've dealt with this my whole life, and I've just accepted it," said the Harper's Choice resident, who also had part of her brain removed at age 13 to thwart seizures.
"Doctors said I would never walk, talk or use my left side, and I can do all of those things, so I just deal with the rest," said Klos, 26, playing down the level of perseverance behind her achievement.
Surprisingly, long-term memory is one of Klos' strongest attributes.
Details about the events leading up to her first craniotomy in 1991 when she was in second grade at Running Brook Elementary School — when "a sudden headache intensified a thousandfold" — remain vivid in her mind. She is practically encyclopedic in her knowledge of plants. An articulate speaker, she said she carries on conversations with her doctors that are filled with medical jargon she's picked up over the years.
But hand her a math problem, whose concept she grasped as it was being taught in class, and she can't retrieve the newly learned information that would allow her to solve it.
"It's frustrating because I can't reproduce my understanding," said Klos, who was forced to repeat math courses at HCC between two and four times apiece.
She took introductory algebra and developmental classes for 11 semesters before starting college-level math, said Carol Manchester, a disability specialist and one of Klos' math tutors at the college.
"I give her a lot of credit for hanging in there," she said. "Other people would have quit a long time ago."
Manchester said she came up with all kinds of methods to help Klos learn, even using toy cars to illustrate the word problems most people hated when they were younger.
When Klos was 11 months old, doctors discovered a blood vessel that normally closes soon after birth had remained open, leading to abnormal blood flow between the two major blood vessels surrounding her heart.
Almost immediately after a procedure to close the vessel, Klos had a stroke and started having seizures. For several years, she rapidly clicked her fingers and waggled her tongue every time her faulty central nervous system sent her fine motor control to run slightly amok. Even though she took medications to control her condition, she still experienced seizures throughout the day.
At age 7 she underwent her first craniotomy to reduce pressure on her brain, and a tumor was discovered and removed.
By the time she was 13, Klos said, she was experiencing between 80 and 100 slight seizures a day. She withdrew from school and was educated at home.
When testing showed the left side of her brain was handling all her functions, surgeons decided to remove the right temporal lobe to stop the seizures.
The lobectomy was deemed successful, though Klos still continues to take several medications to help manage her health.
"It's my way of life," said Klos. "I had to grow up before everyone else, and my parents had to teach me how to dream. Failure has never been allowed. I would just pick myself up and try again."
Karen Brelsford, who has lived next door to the Klos family since they moved in 23 years ago, said Klos' persistence has been inspiring.
"I saw her every morning with her backpack, walking across the street to the campus," she said. "She's also the glue that holds her family together, cooking and cleaning and working the front line. She takes whatever life gives her and doesn't give up."
Peter Klos and Jacob Klos, her father and brother, attended commencement exercises — a bad fall last Sunday put her mother, Deborah Klos, in the hospital.
"I am so proud of Sarah and would have loved to have been there," Klos said from her hospital bed.
"She doesn't have a negative bone in her body, and she never got angry at society or asked 'Why me?'" Klos said, her voice cracking with emotion. "She stuck to the same goal when she wasn't getting rewarded for it. She's now become my strength."
Sarah Klos said she gives a lot of credit to her math professors for helping her get to where she is today.
"They would pull me up and tell me, 'You can do it,' " she said. "I learned it really does take a village to raise a child."
Her HCC experience has inspired Klos to consider transferring to a four-year college to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a nurse. She also hopes to marry one day.
"This will now be a new chapter in my life," Klos said. "Hopefully, it will be a lot simpler."