There are highs and lows in any situation, Damali Richburg said.
For the recent graduate of Harding University High, her lowest low came when she was diagnosed with cancer her junior year.
But it makes you appreciate life, Damali said about her diagnosis. Its her goal to always maintain a positive attitude.
She remembers feeling a lump in her neck one morning in May 2011, and hearing an internal voice say: Look in the mirror.
She said she had a gut feeling something was wrong and her fears were confirmed as she looked in the mirror and noticed a large lump.
That day kicked off multiple visits to numerous doctors in the area. That July, after a painful biopsy, doctors concluded she had thyroid papillary carcinoma, a type of cancer located in her thyroid gland.
But, Damali said, I felt like my path was not over yet. (I thought) what I want to become is going to change people.
She wants to become a nurse or a neonatologist, a pediatric physician who works specifically with newborns.
So she remained hopeful, and began treatment.
After surgery to remove the lump, Damali received radiation, through radioactive iodine. The medication is taken orally and is absorbed by the thyroid gland, destroying thyroid tissue but leaving the rest of the body unharmed. Each time she took it, she had to quarantine herself in her bedroom to limit the radiation exposure of others. Everything she touched had to be sanitized, and at meal times, her mother slipped food under her door. For a brief period, Damali lost her sense of smell and taste.
Its a weird feeling, like something is in your body working, Damali said. You get nauseous Smell changes. Everything smells horrible, even fried chicken.
When she finally started to regain her appetite, she craved a grilled cheese sandwich. Her mother hurried to make one, but used a cheese Damali couldnt quite taste yet. Such a simple thing, Damali remembered, but so maddening: I put my frustration into that grilled cheese, she said. I thought, Why is this happening to me?
When she hit such low points, Damali said, she fell back on her faith, telling herself God has a plan for her.
To pursue that plan, Damali said, she pours herself into volunteer work. Her junior and senior years, she compiled about 190 hours of community service.
On medical track
Her volunteer work spans organizations such as the American Red Cross, Crisis Assistance Ministry and out-of-state mission work with her church. Damali said she also finds time to participate in medical internships and clubs.
Her most memorable occurred at Carolinas Medical Center-Pineville, her junior year, in the labor and delivery unit. The experience solidified her interest to pursue a career in medicine, she said.
There, she shadowed nurses and watched as they administered infant immunizations. She even had the opportunity to view a cesarean section, as well as a natural birth.
You could see how much the new parents trusted the nurses, Damali said. I liked it so much that I would stay the whole 12-hour shift.
Throughout high school, she also participated in the Charlotte Area Health Education Centers HEROES program a club for students who wish to learn more about the health industry. Individuals complete health science workshops, take field trips and listen to health career speakers, among other activities.
Michelle Boyd, assistant director for health careers and diversity at AHEC, said she met Damali three years ago when she entered into the health career program.
Damali is very organized and very mature. Shes also very level-headed and she thinks problems through, Boyd said. She counted on Damali to be a mentor to younger students in the program, and to be an advocate for health services.
Damali believes she will excel in the medical field because she can relate to the pain her future patients will endure: She remembers her lows.
You have to think of your curse as a blessing because it makes a positive example, Damali said. It proves to other people how great life is.
When she isnt volunteering in a hospital or cramming for tests, Damali works at Chick-fil-A, about 20 hours per week. In her free time, she said, she enjoys singing in her church choir. One of the complications associated with surgery on ones thyroid is damage to the vocal cords. But Damali said she slowly regained her soprano singing voice after surgery and still participates in church choir.
All thats left as a reminder of her cancer is the thick scar from her surgery, which she bears like a necklace. I am very proud of her, said Dareneta Richburg, Damalis mother. I want her to go for her dreams. She can do it.
Damali plans to attend UNC Chapel Hill in the fall to study nursing.
I enjoyed the nurses I had (in the hospital), Damali said. They impacted my life and I want to do the same.