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Future teacher learns empathy after brain tumor diagnosis

December 7, 2017

KOKOMO, Ind. —As a future special education teacher, Emily Impson empathizes with the struggles her students face — because she’s experienced similar difficulties herself.

Emily Impson

However, because of the challenges she’s defeated, she also won’t let her students give up, and will support them as they continue to try.

“I’ll understand where a kid is coming from when he or she is frustrated, but I also won’t let it be an excuse, because I couldn’t let it be an excuse,” said Impson, a Frankfort resident.

During her junior year at Indiana University Kokomo, Impson suffered headaches so intense, there were days it hurt to hold her head up. A CT scan revealed a mass on her brain, and an MRI identified it as a vestibular schwannoma, which is a benign, slow-growing tumor that develops around the balance and hearing nerves that supply the inner ear.

Four days after completing her junior year, Impson had a brain tumor the size of a quarter removed from behind her ear, in a 16-hour surgery. The good news is that it isn’t cancerous, and the chances of it coming back are less than 1 percent.

While the tumor was benign, removing it resulted in complete loss of hearing in her left ear.

“I take more time to understand what my students are saying to me, and really focus and pay attention to them,” she said. “I also understand the frustration of not being able to focus, because I have a constant ringing in my ear.”

That ringing makes it hard for her to concentrate — which gives her something in common with many of her special education students.

“I have to take frequent breaks, and I understand my students need frequent breaks too,” Impson said. “This makes me more relatable to my future students. This has been the most painful, intense, scary, and frustrating experience I’ve ever dealt with.”

Her health scare makes her more determined than ever to make a difference for children with special needs — a desire first sparked by her nine-year-old nephew, who is on the autism spectrum.

“Seeing how he and his family have handled his needs, and all the people who have worked with him, I knew I wanted to be in that environment,” she said. “I just want to give back and share my knowledge.”

While Impson now can find positives in her diagnosis, she was terrified when her doctor initially gave her the news.

“It was like in the movies, ‘brain tumor’ was all I could hear,” she said. “I lost it. I just started bawling. I didn’t know if it was cancerous. I had to ask my doctor to talk to my mom, because I couldn’t process anything she was saying.”

Impson talked to her advisor before the surgery about going back to class less than two weeks after surgery, but is thankful now that she gave herself more time to recover.

She began summer classes about six weeks after the procedure, and is taking a full load this semester. In addition to her hearing, she’s also has short-term memory loss, which has meant a change in study habits.

“I’m having to work a lot harder at school than I did last semester, or any other semester,” she said. “I’ve had to go out of my comfort zone, and raise my hand to ask for things to be repeated in class. I was always the person who sat in the back of the class, and now I need to be up front. I type out all my notes, and go home and handwrite them.”

She’s on track to graduate in May, and wants to teach primary grades special education. Later, Impson plans to earn a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, and then complete a Ph.D. in special education. 

Her professors, classmates, and Phi Sigma Sigma sorority sisters rallied behind her before, during and after her surgery.

Teachers were understanding when she missed classes due to headaches, or if she needed to leave early. Her cohort in the School of Education stayed in touch via phone and text, sending good wishes and prayers her way.

“I can speak volumes about IU Kokomo, and the sense of support from my community here,” she said. “Everyone let me know they were here for me, and asked how they could help.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 12/07/2017