Dressed sharply in her green Army uniform, Bonnita Wilson charged through life. A wife and mother of three, she slept only four or five hours a night, pumped 65 push-ups in two minutes and earned early promotions. She was a fast-rising star in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.
So when Major Wilson was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer just before she was to start graduate work at the University of Maryland School of Nursing two years ago, she did the only thing she knew how: She kept going and doing her best.
While pursuing her master's degree at Maryland, Wilson underwent two mastectomies, chemotherapy, radiation and four reconstructive surgeries. Along the way, she suffered a string of complications, including a massive hemorrhage. But she hid her illness, missed only four classes, and on Friday, she graduates with a 3.8 GPA, one of the top students in her class.
"I wasn't going to let cancer stop me from going to school," says Wilson, 36, who had another operation yesterday. "It was just something that I had to finish on time."
It's an attitude that has carried her through life. Growing up in Savannah, Ga., she worked hard in school, earned good grades and planned to go to college. She won scholarships, graduated cum laude, and then, according to those who worked with her, turned into a dynamo of a nurse, caring for the most critically ill patients. Even her foray into weightlifting four years ago quickly earned her top honors in the Armed Forces bodybuilding contest.
"I was a workaholic. I was hard core," Wilson says. "I was a soldier."
But this time, being tough meant going to school wearing oversized shirts to hide her bandages, trying to pay attention in class even though she was in pain from surgery or exhausted from chemo, and then driving back to her Odenton home, sometimes crying all the way.
For while she studied systems analysis, electronic medical records and other topics in Maryland's nationally known nursing informatics program, Wilson was also getting a raw lesson in living with illness. One question kept haunting her: Would she live to raise her children?
She had done everything that's supposed to keep breast cancer away. She ate healthy food, worked out daily, had her children when she was young and breast-fed them. But she still got sick.
Wilson first noticed the lump in the spring of 1999, but since she was breast-feeding her infant son Jordan, she dismissed it as a blocked milk duct. By Fourth of July weekend, though, she had landed in the hospital where she worked, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Lying in bed, terrified about the orange-sized mass in her right breast, she couldn't wait any longer for her pathology report.
So she wrapped her hospital gown tightly around her, padded over to a computer terminal and typed in her name.
"Abnormal cells," "poorly defined margins," she read, checking the patient information at the top and thinking there must be another Bonnita Wilson, on active duty, with her same Social Security number.
"I must have read it 50 times," she says. "I'm thinking, 'This is a mistake.' " But it wasn't. She had two types of cancer - sarcoma, and a more dangerous, invasive cancer. Within a few days, she had a mastectomy, and two weeks before her graduate classes started, she had her first chemo treatment.
Eventually she had radiation, And, months later, when doctors thought they noticed something in her other breast, the decision was made to do another mastectomy. Then, in a rare, cruel twist, she got hit by almost every complication possible as surgeons tried to reconstruct her breast tissue.
At one point after the implants were put in, just before a summer exam, she felt a sudden pain and saw her chest begin to swell. Curled in a fetal position because of the pain, she was rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered she had lost two liters of blood. They had to remove the implant on her left side.
"I've never seen all of these things happen in one person," says her oncologist at Walter Reed, Dr. Alfred B. Brooks, who has seen hundreds of patients in his nearly 20 years as an oncologist. "This was trial by fire. I did say, 'How much can she take?' " Wilson tried to balance academics and illness: Surgeries were scheduled for Fridays, so she wouldn't have to miss class. She didn't tell her professors, because she didn't want them to go easier on her. She used plenty of makeup, along with her buoyant personality, to make everything seem fine.
One professor said that when she looked out at her class, Wilson always stood out as brainy, engaged, creative - and never afraid to ask questions.
"She kind of instantly comes off as a shiny star," says Dr. Patricia Abbott, director of the informatics program at the nursing school, who estimated Wilson was in the top 4 percent of students she has ever taught.
But the sickness Wilson tried so carefully to conceal intruded on her academic life.
One professor recalls getting a matter-of-fact phone call from Wilson apologizing for missing the first class because she was having a mastectomy, and then asking for the reading assignments and promising to be present the following week.
As director of the program, Abbott knew about Wilson's cancer earlier because she had re-arranged her schedule.
"I'd look over at her, and she'd be over there trying so hard, and her wig would be cockeyed," says Abbott. "It would choke me up in class. The dedication - it was just incredible."
Still, it ate at Wilson that she wasn't the student she expected herself to be.
"I don't feel like you've seen my best work," Wilson said once to Abbott, breaking down in her office after a class. "I'm really smart, and I'm really good at this, but you haven't seen how really good I am."
She had envisioned herself as a scholar, absorbed in her work, and since the Army was paying for her tuition, she had to maintain a B average. Plus, as one of just four nurses nationwide selected to attend a military command college for a year, she was also completing a rigorous Army course from home.
As always, she impressed everybody around her. Most said they never would have known she was having trouble if she hadn't lost her hair, or missed a class because of her illness.
Bonnita Wilson was her own worst critic, and for the first time in her life, she had to face that maybe she couldn't do it all. She found herself procrastinating. She had to force herself to open her text books. She looked in the mirror and didn't recognize herself. And even with the surgeries and treatments, every day she wondered if one cancer cell had managed to escape.
Although her physicians and others encouraged her to take medicine for depression, for a long time, she rejected it. And except for taking a lighter load one semester, she refused offers from the Army and the nursing school for more time, or delays in her course work.
"Her internal religion is that you can overcome through endurance. You either study or run or lift or eat or not eat," says her oncologist, Brooks. "To have a random event occur is something that's still hard for her to accept."
But very slowly, his patient started to see that she was giving the best she could give.
"I'm in the Army. I'm strong, I'm tough," Wilson says. "But I'm also a woman with three kids who had cancer."
She used to bench-press 225 pounds, but now a 15-pound weight caused her chest to burn and shake. She used to be the student who woke at 5 a.m. to study; now, anytime was a struggle.
"I'm not the old Bonnita, but the doctor says I just have to be who I am now," she says.
Now, she lets herself stay in bed if she's tired. She doesn't worry as much about keeping the house immaculate. She has finally realized that her husband, Master Sgt. Val Wilson, 37, a career counselor stationed at Fort Meade, loves her just as much as before her mastectomies. And she's taking six weeks off this summer to spend time with her children, 12-year-old Lauren, 7-year-old Val and 2-year-old Jordan. "We're going to swim; we're going to bowl; we're going to just get in the car and go," she declares happily. "I just want to be with my babies."
She still faces more reconstructive surgery, but her oncologist says her prognosis is good. Her next job is in the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, working on hospital information systems for the Department of Defense.
She has started to smile again, and to think about more than just getting through the next day. She's even considering what the family will do for Christmas.
Last week, while trying to study for her last exam, she found herself writing her name on a piece of paper, followed by the initials that represent her hard-won degree: M.S.N., for Master of Science in nursing. Over and over, she practiced the signature.
She knows she made it. And she's starting to like the new person she has become.
"I've just felt this peace, where I feel OK," Wilson says slowly, her face lit up, her eyes gazing off to somewhere in the future. "I'm going to be here for a long time. Quite a long time."