Isaac Sawchuk didn’t dream of moving away from home, graduating college and starting a career. He was busy fighting for his life.
Despite the odds stacked against him due to a lifelong, life-threatening heart condition, Sawchuk recently walked across the stage of Sanford Health Athletic Complex, shook NDSU President David Cook’s hand and took possession of his bachelor’s degree in management information systems. It was the culmination of years of hospital stays, treatments, hard work, commitment and dedication to a goal some thought might be impossible. Even Sawchuk had doubts.
“I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to do it,” said Sawchuk, who is from Fargo.
At the age of 12, a virus attacked Sawchuk’s heart. He spent two years in the hospital. Doctors didn’t think he would make it to high school.
On the day before his 15th birthday, Sawchuk had open heart surgery to remove the lining that surrounds his heart. Six months after his surgery, the Make-A-Wish Foundation sent Sawchuk and his family to Los Angeles, California to meet Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher, Todd McFarlane, best known as the artist on “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and Jim Lee, the president, publisher and Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics, along with other well-known comic artists.
“What was so wonderful is that it started to get me to dream and to think of things that there was something I wanted to get healthy for,” Sawchuk said. “It also gave me really nice memories to look back on because that whole time period was mainly filled with not-so-nice memories.”
Sawchuk said he has always liked superheroes, especially Spider-Man, for their physical anomalies and how they overcome any challenges that come their way.
Sawchuk can relate.
Because of the effects of the virus, Sawchuk was diagnosed with severe Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, an abnormal response by the autonomic nervous system that causes symptoms like fainting, heart palpitation, nausea and constant pain.
Attending college was a hope for Sawchuk, who said he received helpful tools from the Mayo Clinic in order to graduate high school.
“Once I was about halfway through high school I figured, you know, I’m able to do this, I can probably do college,” he said.
Sawchuk chose NDSU because he was a Bison sports fan and he had cousins and a brother who attended the university.
“It’s a great school and I also liked the idea of being close to home,” he said.
NDSU’s Center for Accessibility and Disability Resources helped advocate for Sawchuk to be able to take his classes online due to the physical affects POTS has on him.
“The biggest challenges were the physical challenges. A big reason I couldn’t be there in class was I have blood pooling that anytime I’m sitting, standing or walking, the blood’s pooling and that escalates all other symptoms, the pain, nausea, the brain fog. And so getting up and going to class physically, I ended up spending more time just trying to make it through the class than actually learning anything,” he said.
There were times when Sawchuk thought about quitting.
“Probably some of the best advice I ever received was from my sister, and she said ‘college is a constant battle not to drop out.’ It was really difficult,” Sawchuk said. “I just really felt like this is the thing I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to finish it and this is the path in front of me. I really felt like I needed to complete it.”
Through his time at NDSU, Sawchuk is thankful for the staff and professors who have helped him along the way, including Claudia Simon, a former disability specialist with the Center for Accessibility and Disability Resources. Additionally, Sawchuk said his parents, Jana and Ted, and God helped him push forward to get his degree.
Being able to walk across the stage at the commencement ceremony was special for Sawchuk and his family.
“We never thought he’d get there so it’s such a big deal,” Jana Sawchuk said. “Everyone was in the stadium cheering their graduate on, and when Isaac went across the stage we cheered and thought, 'no one knows what that guy went through to graduate.’ And at one time the Center for Accessibility and Disability Resources told us that no one with severe POTS like he has, they said we don’t know of anyone that’s graduated with it because they said they all quit. We knew what a big deal it was. It’s pretty emotional.”
Sawchuk said he can feel the pride from his family who got to watch him graduate with a 4.0 GPA.
“We’re really proud of him. He persevered and he stuck to it and he got it done,” said Ted Sawchuk.
Now that he’s graduated, Sawchuk is starting an IT job with Maas Energy Works, a renewable energy company in Redding, California. He’s excited to start a new chapter of his life.
And he’s convinced he can now accomplish anything.
“It was a miracle that I made it to high school and I graduated high school,” he said. “I knew every time I finished a semester in college, I was breaking ground and doing things that probably no one else had done before. I was the first in my high school to graduate with POTS and I don’t know how many POTS graduates there are at NDSU, but it’s probably very small.”