Teacher gets back to health, school ‘family’

January 19, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Mary Rusk reaches out to pet the family horse, Serin, as her son Gavin looks on at their Preston home. By Greg Farrar.

Mary Rusk reaches out to pet the family horse, Serin, as her son Gavin looks on at their Preston home. By Greg Farrar.

When Mary Rusk set foot in Clark Elementary School for the first time this school year on Jan. 5, she felt like her life had finally become complete again.

“Monday, when I saw my students’ eyes, I felt at home again,” she said. “I love my work and I love teaching. It was a long time not to be here.”“It is wonderful,” said Principal Sue McPeak. “When you have a member of your family gone, it’s hard. But when they come back, well, that’s what it feels like, the return of a family member.”

It was June when Rusk had last seen her colleagues, classroom and students.

Worst suspicions confirmed

After years of dealing with headaches and unexplained symptoms, Rusk, a 42-year-old kindergarten teacher, finally took her health into her own hands. Not satisfied with explanations from her physician, she underwent a voluntary MRI last spring.

It confirmed her suspicions that something was really wrong and that it was bad — she had a brain tumor.

In April, she saw it on an X-ray, a tumor sitting next to her pituitary gland, the size of her little fingernail.

“They told me I could leave it in and possibly die with it at an old age or it could kill me,” she said. “You should always listen to your gut. If a doctor tells you nothing is wrong, but you still think something isn’t right, get more opinions. Don’t give up till you’re satisfied.”

After seeking advice from her brothers, and her sons, Gavin, 15, and Bram, 23, she decided to undergo brain surgery in August.

“I just knew that she’d be able to recover and that we’d be fine,” Gavin said.

The decision saved her life.

“It could have continued to bleed in my brain,” Rusk said. “I wouldn’t be here.”


More than a tumor

Doctors discovered the tumor had grown to the size of a golf ball, had begun to deteriorate and was bleeding. The surgery that was supposed to last five hours went for 12 and Rusk had to be put into a medically induced coma.

After enduring 17 days in a hospital, she said she felt great and was sent home.

But not long after she began rehabilitative speech, physical and occupational therapies, her body slowly started declining. She spent months in doctors’ offices and hospitals attempting to figure out why.

In the meantime, she and Gavin had to continue the poultry business they’d started on their farm in Preston. They were also forced to move from their home when they discovered large amounts of mold inside. They stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Issaquah while their home was cleaned.

Rusk became extremely ill there the week before Christmas.

“I came in and my hands were crippled,” she said, curling them up tightly. “I looked like I had had rheumatoid arthritis for years and I couldn’t walk.”

An endocrine specialist finally understood what was wrong. The tumor and surgery had severely damaged her pituitary gland, which regulates hormones in your body. Yet no one had given her additional hormones to compensate for it.

Once she was placed on the appropriate amount of hormones, her body rebounded rapidly.

“She’s very, very stubborn,” Gavin said.

He said that attitude and reassurance from doctors enabled him to stay strong for his mother and gave him hope she’d get well.


Back to school

Within a week she was nearly back to 100 percent and felt sure she was ready to return to school and her students, so she called McPeak.

The principal was surprised, since she knew of Rusk’s latest trip to the hospital just weeks before, but it was a welcome call, she said.

“She has a great big heart and she connects with her kids, but also connects to the families,” McPeak said. “When she was gone, they were always asking ‘Where is Ms. Mary?’ She has always been a giver and there to support them in any way she can.

“Whether they are struggling and come in with no skills, or whether they are advanced, she meets their needs academically, but socially and emotionally as well,” she said.

“I didn’t realize how much I loved a routine and being in my classroom every day,” Rusk said. “But I love teaching 5-year-olds how to read. I love seeing the children’s eyes light up when they discover they can read. It gives me goose bumps.”

“She’s been at Clark her entire career,” McPeak said. “Clark has had a lot of different things happen to it over the years — it faced closure last year, changes in program and in enrollment. But she believes in this school. It is part of her and she is part of us.”


‘Blessing after blessing’

Her long journey has been made easier by support from the community, her friends, family and school.

“She left in the spring and they didn’t know,” McPeak said.

But she began e-mailing her staff members in August to give them updates on Rusk’s health.

“When she didn’t come back for school, different things just kept bubbling up. One teacher here kind of led the support effort, coordinating food,” McPeak said. “She and Gavin live on a farm with animals to care for, so she coordinated people going out there to help — just lots of things.”

Other friends and family provided meals and care for the home. One woman in upper Preston, who the family didn’t know, offered her guesthouse to Rusk and her two sons after they learned about the mold.

“My support system here has been great,” Rusk said. “They have been a great deal of help with their prayers, their well wishes, everything. That is what has gotten Gavin and I through. I can’t believe it. It’s been blessing after blessing.”

“I was so surprised,” Gavin said. “One of my mom’s friends made dinners for us and that was really cool.”

Family, though, was probably the most important support. Gavin, Bram and Rusk’s mother drove her to appointments and coordinated efforts on the farm.

“When I went into surgery, he ran the business. He ran me to appointments. He took care of our other animals and he took care of me,” Rusk said, smiling. “He did it all while doing an awesome job in school.

“He is one incredible kid. Both he and his brother did an amazing job.”

The support of physicians, nurses, surgeons and specialists at Swedish Emergency Care in Issaquah, Overlake Hospital and Harborview Medical Center, and the therapists at Snoqualmie Valley Hospital, was also amazing, she said.

“All of the people we have had to deal with have been a tremendous help,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here without them.”

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