North East Connected

“I am proud of us both”

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From the heartache of seeing her daughter undergo major brain surgery to landing her dream teaching job – student life has been a rollercoaster of emotions for University of Sunderland graduate Sara Bainbridge.

Sara, from Jarrow, enrolled at the University in 2020 to pursue her passion for teaching. Earlier this year, the 39-year-old graduated with a degree in Education Studies.

However, Sara’s graduation journey hasn’t been an easy one.

Two months before she was due to begin her course, her daughter Catrina Anderson collapsed suddenly, and doctors found a serious bleed on her brain.

Catrina was a happy and healthy 12-year-old until the evening of July 4, 2020, when she complained of a headache and began to vomit before collapsing at her dad John Anderson’s home.

An ambulance rushed her to Sunderland Royal Hospital where doctors originally believed she may have suffered a seizure. However, a scan revealed she had a ‘significant’ bleed on her brain, and she was taken straight to the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) in Newcastle for emergency surgery.

Doctors inserted a drain into Catrina’s skull to remove the excess fluids on her brain and she spent two days on a ventilator in intensive care.

Scans found Catrina was born with Arteriovenous Malformations (AVM) – an abnormal tangle of blood vessels that causes problems with the connections between your arteries and veins. The initial bleed was caused when a weak vein feeding the AVM ruptured.

Catrina also had a brain aneurysm and required major brain surgery.

Sara said: “We were told she could die at any time, that’s how bad things were inside her brain.

“I literally felt like I had been hit by a train, I’ve never felt anything like it in my life.

“The COVID restrictions at the time made things so much harder, you just felt completely by yourself even though I wasn’t. My support network was just at the end of the phone and my husband Tony and Catrina’s dad were there.

“Every worst-case scenario went through my head, that she might not make it through this operation.”

After 13 days in hospital, Catrina recovered at home and returned to hospital three months later to check the AVM had been completely removed.

Sadly, scans revealed this wasn’t the case and in November 2021 Catrina had to be transferred to Sheffield for specialist treatment.

Doctors used stereotactic radiosurgery or a gamma knife, which is a type of radiation therapy, to target the AVM – but Catrina has to wait four years, taking her until 2025, to find out if the treatment has been effective.

However, in December 2022, there was another blow for Catrina and her family. Doctors found a potentially cancerous lump in Catrina’s throat and in April this year she had surgery at Newcastle’s RVI to remove half of her thyroid gland. Six weeks later, test results confirmed that it was not cancer.

Despite years of heartache and uncertainty, Sara refused to give up on her studies. The course gave Sara the flexibility to work from home meaning she could look after Catrina.

Sara admits her degree was like a lifeline during the difficult days.

“Studying was my escape,” Sara explained.

“Even the trauma of seeing Catrina be so poorly, I couldn’t sit and dwell on it, or start looking things up on the internet and obsessing over it because I had assignments and revision to do. It really did keep me going.”

Finally, 2023 provided some good news for Sara and Catrina. Not only did Sara celebrate her graduation but she also landed her dream job.

Sara is a Learning Support Officer at Route2Work College, within Groundwork South and North Tyneside, which helps 16 to 24-year-olds with learning difficulties and disabilities gain recognised qualifications, learn new skills and improve their chances of getting a job.

Sara said: “I’m really happy to have a role in which I can really relate and can make a difference. I hope I can make a positive impact on the students.”

Like mother like daughter, Catrina is also determined to achieve her goals – she sat her GCSE examinations in the summer and attended her high school prom.

Catrina, now 16, is studying a Level 2 certificate in Introducing Caring for Children and Young People, alongside her Level 2 English, at Newcastle College.

While Catrina and her family face another two-year wait before finding out whether her specialist treatment in Sheffield has been successful in removing the AVM, Catrina continues to live her life to the full, serving as an inspiration to all who know her.

Sara said: “Catrina is amazing, she just takes it all in her stride.

“Even though she has a brain injury, you would never know. She is a very happy go lucky type of girl and I am so proud of her.

“I am proud of us both.”

The last three years have no doubt been enormously challenging for Sara and Catrina, and Sara has thanked her tutors at the University for supporting her through her studies.

Sara said: “I’d like to thank the staff at the University of Sunderland who let me rant and cry and were there to listen. Their support meant so much to me.”

Alexandra Brown, Lecturer in Initial Teacher Training and Education Studies at the University, said: “Many students would have withdrawn from the course if they were faced with the same challenges as Sara, but she showed nothing but determination. Her resilience and commitment were exceptional, and I was so proud to watch her walk across that stage and accept her degree.”

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