SPRING HILL — Before Tracey Leschinsky became a college graduate last week — before her hair fell out in clumps while she alternated chemotherapy and textbooks, before she realized she was meant to be a nurse — she was a mother.
And like many mothers being honored on Mother's Day today, the 43-year-old Leschinsky will tell you that having children was the best thing that ever happened to her. Raising three daughters was her life's most important work.
But as they grew older, they needed her less, and she began searching for a career. She dabbled in sales and customer service. Her mother, Joann Sweet, 65, manages a doctor's office.
"Maybe you should go back to school and study something in health care," her mother told her.
Leschinsky, who has been a single mom for years, began taking classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College. She did well in medical billing and coding — a field she heard was growing — but found it boring. She wanted to work with people.
"I'd rather be hands-on and taking care of patients," Leschinsky said. "I've always loved to care for people."
Leschinsky's three girls — Amanda, 23, Ashley, 18, and Amber, 16 — encouraged her to follow her desire to help others. She took the prerequisite classes for PHCC's nursing program.
"Before she officially became a nurse, I saw her being a nurse," said Ashley. "She's always making sure other people are okay."
Leschinsky got a part-time job as a certified nursing assistant at Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill and worked Thursday and Friday shifts so she could study on the weekends.
But in the fall of 2009, two semesters shy of graduation, Leschinsky was forced to assume another, completely unwelcome role: patient.
She had felt a strange lump under her arm. Maybe it's just a cyst, she told herself.
"Maybe it's just a cyst," her mother agreed.
But the day after her first visit with a doctor, surgery confirmed what Leschinsky had feared most: Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Telling her daughters was the hardest part.
"I sat there in shock," said Ashley. "I didn't know what to do or think. I remember getting up and walking down the hall and into the stairwell and I just cried."
Juggling a part-time job, chemotherapy and the final year of nursing classes would be too much. She took a leave from work.
"I'm going to finish school," Leschinsky said. Her mother offered to help make ends meet.
The six months of chemotherapy were difficult. She felt sick all of the time. Sometimes she wanted to quit chemotherapy. Other times she felt overwhelmed as she worked to keep up with her nursing classes.
"If it wasn't for my mom and my kids, I would never have made it this far," Leschinsky said. "I wouldn't have gotten out of bed. I would have just crawled into a hole."
Ashley recalled some of the most difficult days.
"I'd say, 'Mom you can do this,' " she said. " 'You've come this far. You can't give up. You have to finish. You'll be a nurse.' "
As the weeks turned into months and she neared the six-month mark, Leschinsky was diagnosed with several blood clots — a side effect of chemotherapy — one in her leg, one in her heart and one in her lungs. She spent nine days in the hospital. She worried about the lectures she was missing.
Leschinsky's PHCC instructors and classmates were understanding and helpful, sharing notes and checking in by e-mail to ensure that she understood the material.
While it was unsettling to see their mother so sick, her strength and humor encouraged her daughters.
"I love the fact that my mom never gave up," said Amanda. "Once you give up, that's usually when you get sicker. She kept fighting. She's a very strong person."
"She would joke about her hair falling out," Ashley said. "She would say, 'Oh, my hair's so pretty.' She could joke about it and not care. It made me so happy. My mom being that strong has made me a stronger person."
Once Leschinsky's coursework was competed, it felt like a dream.
"I never thought this is the path my life would take," she said. "You just never know what life is going to bring you and what's going to come out of it."
On Wednesday morning, Tracey Leschinsky, mother of three, walked across the stage at Pasco-Hernando Community College in New Port Richey and received her diploma.
Her cancer is in remission.
She can't wait to get back to work.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.