Every now and then you meet someone with a truly inspirational life story. One such person is Dr Amy Martin from Durbanville. Her world was turned upside down in her teens when she was diagnosed with life-threatening brain tumours at the age of 14, 17 and 18. Not one to give up, Martin fought back and against all odds achieved the pinnacle of academic success when she recently completed her PhD in Ancient Cultures at Stellenbosch University (SU). The 33-year-old will receive her degree at SU's April graduation on Wednesday (6 April 2022). Her study focused on the notion of a female poetic tradition in ancient Greek literature.
What makes Martin's achievements so remarkable, is that she only has 75% of her brain left after multiple operations to remove the tumours. She currently has four titanium plates in her skull, along with 16 titanium screws. The tumours also caused severe epilepsy and muscular damage that took her years to overcome.
Martin says being diagnosed with brain tumours during such an important phase of her life was very hard, both physically and emotionally. She had to deal with a lot of stress and trauma.
“I definitely struggled in the beginning. When I woke up from my operations in the intensive care unit (ICU), I couldn't move my left arm. And the doctors told me there was a very big possibility that I would never really regain the full movement on the left side of my body. So, I went for physiotherapy.
“While in ICU, I watched people of all ages die. That gave me a new perspective on life and death."
Because of her medical trauma, Martin says she often felt disconnected from everyone. “I was too afraid to leave the house because I was so scared of having a seizure in public – which did happen. It was difficult, but I had my family to support me."
This support was vital for Martin, given that after the diagnoses and operations, things didn't always go well in high school.
She experienced bullying because of her shaven head which left the massive operation scar exposed. She also suffered from severe epilepsy which caused damage and fear. “I was constantly afraid of the next seizure. They were extremely painful. My marks also dropped.
“In the beginning, I kept wondering every time I potentially did something silly whether it was just me or if whether it was because of my brain tumour and the fact that 25% of my brain was missing. Luckily, I also had friends who pushed me to be better and who reminded me that this did not define me.
“In time I learned that it was part of my personality. It was a part of me. It shaped me to be who I am and forged my path to some extent, but it would not define me and it would not in any way dictate where I was going with my future. So, I just kept strong and reminded myself that I was still capable of doing whatever I set my mind to."Success at university
Thanks to this fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude, Martin finished high school and enrolled at SU to study languages and cultures. After obtaining her first degree, she went to South Korea to teach English for two years, and then came back to complete her honours and Master's degrees in Ancient Cultures at SU. Having enjoyed her time in South Korea, she went back for another stint to teach English. “It was a wonderful opportunity to experience different cultures, learn new languages, and of course, to travel the world. And then I decided I wanted to pursue my PhD in Ancient Cultures."
Martin looks back at her time at SU with great fondness and says academia gave her back her power.
“I struggled to cope in high school, but at university I made new friends and became a part of the Stellenbosch community, where there was a lot of encouragement and support for me to follow my dreams. This helped me to overcome all of these challenges and to become who I am today."
She adds: “When I reached university, I felt almost freed in a way from the academic space at high school, because I could decide for myself where I wanted to go with my studies and what I was passionate about. And it was actually during my postgraduate studies that I really excelled. I pushed myself to be the best in my class every single time."
Martin says every time she scored top marks, it served as a reminder that she was still very capable of excelling in academia and that she could do this despite the brain operations and resulting trauma.
“I always had this drive to show everyone that even though I suffered severe brain trauma, I could still accomplish all my dreams."
Having gone through these severe hardships as a teenager, Martin has learned to take it one step at a time and not to expect too many things of herself at once. “I'm slowly and gradually building myself up and accepting my flaws." Instead of focusing on those things that she hasn't yet accomplished, she rather tries to enjoy the things she has already accomplished. “Anything is conquerable if you just persevere, even in the face of extreme challenges."
Martin hopes her story will inspire people who might be facing similar challenges or who struggle to cope with life in general.
“I've learned to have more empathy for people who struggle, especially people diagnosed with cancer, because I was there myself and know how difficult it can be.
“There's nothing wrong with feeling down or having moments of doubt and being afraid of the future because there are so many challenges that we face."
When not studying, Martin loves to put on her running shoes and go for a jog. “Jogging keeps me fit and sharp. I also enjoy reading, especially books on the ancient world. And watching movies, I love Netflix. And I'm learning Korean at the moment."
Now that she has finished her PhD, Martin is again applying for teaching positions in South Korea. She would also like to travel more and visit the many ancient sites in Greece and Italy. “I have always been fascinated with the ancient world."
- Photo: Dr Amy Martin at the graduation. Photographer: Stefan Els