With Education as Her Means of “Lifting Myself and Others Higher,” Christine Gettys Perseveres in Completing Her M.A.L.S. Degree

With Education as Her Means of “Lifting Myself and Others Higher,” Christine Gettys Perseveres in Completing Her M.A.L.S. Degree

Academics, Graduate Studies, Testimonials

May 23, 2024

With Education as Her Means of “Lifting Myself and Others Higher,” Christine Gettys Perseveres in Completing Her M.A.L.S. Degree Chris Gettys '24 Commencement

At Hollins University’s 182nd Commencement Exercises on May 19, Christine Gettys was among the candidates receiving a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (M.A.L.S.) degree. For her, the ceremony was the culmination of an often difficult but ultimately triumphant odyssey that began at Hollins 20 years ago, but truly started the day she was born.

Completing her graduate degree this spring after originally arriving at Hollins in 2004 “has been about fulfillment,” Gettys says. “I know this will open doors for me.” She adds that her achievement is a testament to education’s immeasurable worth. “Education saves lives because what is gained remains useful across the lifespan,” she writes in her master’s thesis, a memoir she entitled The Silent Scream. “More than any other intervention, the learning process gave me a way to reconcile difficulties and move forward.” For Gettys, there is “one element of life that gave me power: my capacity to learn.”

Gettys was born prematurely in 1966, weighing just three pounds, and grew up in a military family that moved from South Carolina to California when she was two. At around that age, it was observed that she wasn’t meeting developmental milestones, and she was subsequently diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that permanently impacts body movement and muscle coordination. As a child, she says that in the Gross Motor Function Classification System (GMFCS), “I was probably a Level II,” meaning that she had difficulty walking long distances and balancing on uneven terrain, and only minimal ability to run or jump. She also had to cope with a lack of posture control. She began school as a special education student.

“Appearances mattered. I did not fit,” she writes in The Silent Scream, and she acknowledges that she “struggled with complex childhood trauma” at home (“The Great Santini has nothing on my old man.”) and at school (“I noticed reactions changed if I explained my limp, but kids still mocked me – they didn’t get it.”). She also underwent a number of procedures in order to maintain her ability to walk, and endured what she calls “the worst experience of my life” when she had a major corrective surgery, a bilateral derotational osteotomy, resulting in her missing most of eighth grade.

Fortunately, Gettys says, “I found a way forward.” Her conduit was education. “In high school, teachers rewarded and looked for my strengths, mainly in English, history, and home economics. With me getting good grades, suddenly, my cerebral palsy was more of a dilemma for kids. By that time, I lost interest in explaining my condition. I just asked, What’s your issue? Taken off-guard, most people became indifferent; a couple of friends stayed – people tried to pay me to do their homework; I joked and said, ‘No thanks, I’ve got brain damage.’”

At age 13, she began a ten-year stint volunteering at Camp Cuyamaca in San Diego County, California, which serves children with muscular dystrophy. “I couldn’t push a wheelchair, but I could make people laugh,” she recalls in The Silent Scream. “I could do arts and crafts, listen, and be me and a friend. I…became Chrissy, the Crusader; helping others gave me some purpose and power.”

Another pivotal moment in high school was meeting “Cathy,” who became her close friend. “She was the first one who taught me to drive. I’d taken some driver’s education in school, but you know, having cerebral palsy and stuff, who would think I could handle the brake and the accelerator? It wasn’t hard. I just needed someone to believe in me and give me a chance.”

Gettys aspired to become an English teacher. She had developed impressive skills as an orator and was recruited by a number of colleges and universities for their forensics teams. She ended up enrolling at San Diego State University (SDSU), but the physical obstacles she encountered on campus were formidable. “I could not get around the hilly environment, and in those days, they didn’t have much for disability services,” she explains. “From then on, I became an advocate for accessibility. The most important aspect was not that each school had the services; rather, that the will to provide accommodation existed. Learning is disrupted when appropriate aid is not procured. Today, I would not be where I am without teachers who understood that pacing was essential to my outcome.”

Feeling she had no choice but to leave SDSU, Gettys nevertheless remained committed to pursuing a teaching career, earning her associate degree from Palomar College. She subsequently married, moved to Oregon, and started a family (“My children were born – the most incredible gifts.”).

In the early 2000s, Gettys learned about the Extended Campus at Oregon State University (OSU), which gave her the opportunity to continue her education by taking classes online. She excelled at OSU, but in November 2002 she underwent her first cervical spine surgery; the procedure left her temporarily unable to talk or write and meant that she had to begin using a power wheelchair full-time. Still, she was able to finish her coursework and graduate magna cum laude.

“One element of life gave me power: my capacity to learn,” says Gettys, pictured here with longtime friends Della McDaniel and Diana Gerken following Hollins’ 182nd Commencement.

OSU offered Gettys a position teaching English, but she decided to move to Virginia to support her aunt, a caregiver for Gettys’ ailing grandfather who lived in Salem. Her grandfather died while she was in transit, but after arriving in the area she discovered Hollins and its Master of Arts in Teaching program. “It was just so beautiful there I couldn’t not come,” she recalls.

After relocating, Gettys was invited back to OSU to speak at a commencement dinner. Among the featured guests were senator and former astronaut John Glenn and his wife, Annie.

“At our table that night, Annie told me of how she overcame a severe stutter in the late 70s, thanks to the communications research institute that was then a part of Hollins. So, I also came to Hollins out of respect for Annie.”

Gettys would later switch to the MALS program at Hollins. At the same time, she supported her family by working in the Social Security Administration. However, she continued to deal with a number of serious health concerns. “I had about 14 surgeries or major hospitalizations between 2009 and 2017,” she says. “Everyone experiences cerebral palsy differently. You don’t get worse from it, but you get comorbidities. For me, spinal cord disease became the bigger issue.” She describes the process of working on her MALS degree in the ensuing years as “starting and stopping.”

As was the case at OSU, Gettys persevered in completing the course requirements for her MALS and only had to produce her thesis to earn her degree. Then, she was devastated to learn that she needed emergency spinal surgery. She says there was a 40% chance that she would not survive. She could also end up with comorbidities that would correlate with the impact of a major stroke or leave her with paralyzed vocal cords.

“I remember calling [Director of Graduate Education Programs and MALS Director] Lorraine Lange because I have a lot of respect for her. Honestly, I was sort of saying goodbye. I really thought it was that serious. Lorraine said to me, ‘Chris, the only thing that you have to do right now is fight. Just fight.’ There’s this compassion and approachability at Hollins when a student has difficulties, and I really appreciated that.”

Her surgery was successful, but it meant that Gettys would need constant aid moving forward. Nevertheless, she was determined to finish her thesis, which she decided to frame as a memoir of the lessons she’s learned through a lifetime of challenges. The surgery fused C2-T1 in her spine, and because of the resulting pressure above and below the fusion, she had to type her thesis with her thumbs. Nevertheless, she says she’s grateful “to be given another chance.” On the GMFCS scale, she is presently “an advanced Level IV,” which the system describes as “requiring physical assistance or powered mobility in most settings.”

Because of her experience and education, Gettys was named a fellow with the American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine (AACPDM), whose mission is to provide accessible scientific education, foster innovative research, and advocate for accessible access to care related to cerebral palsy and other childhood-onset disabilities. Now, with her MALS degree, she has attained junior partner status with the organization. She is eligible to apply for grant funding to support producing paper presentations that enlighten health professionals and researchers.

“I have written a paper on lymphedema and cerebral palsy, and I have been selected to present it at the 78th AACPDM Annual Meeting in Quebec City in October,” she says.

Despite all the trials she’s had to surmount, and the many setbacks she’s faced, Gettys insists, “There’s no reason anyone should feel bad for me. I’m not special. You still have to believe in yourself and then you dare to believe that someone else will believe in you, too. Lorraine believed in me, and now she’s given me the opportunity to fulfill a goal.”

In The Silent Scream, Gettys reflects, “I have slowly come to value education as an agent of traction that binds an individual to themselves….No matter what has transpired, I have returned to the same goal – to use education to lift myself and others higher. I would not be here without education and the means to advocate for myself.”

Top Photo (left to right): Director of Graduate Education Programs Lorraine Lange, Christine Gettys M.A.L.S. ’24, and Gettys’ son, Joshua, at Roanoke’s Berglund Center for Hollins’ 182nd Commencement Exercises.