A stroke caused Upstate senior to miss her Commencement … but her classmates made sure she was part of the ceremony

SUNY Upstate College of Health Professions

Kristin Tanyag, front center, poses with fellow members of Upstate's Medical Technology Class of 2013. Immediately after the May 19 Commencement ceremony, Kristin's classmates visited her in Upstate University Hospital, where she was recovering from a stroke.

As student speaker Angela Aponte concluded her remarks at Upstate’s College of Health Professions Commencement May 19, she acknowledged a fellow graduate who wasn’t able to make the ceremony.

Angela didn’t explain why Kristin Tanyag wasn’t there. But the Medical Technology Class of 2013 knew. As soon as the ceremony ended, they made a beeline to Upstate University Hospital, where Kristin was recovering from a stroke.

Kristin, 24, had completed all of her academic requirements, graduating summa cum laude with a 3.95 GPA. But about 10 days before graduation, she couldn’t shake a lingering headache before going to bed. She was at home in the North Country near Fort Drum, where her husband, Garey Smith, is stationed.

When Kristin awoke the next morning, Garey was already on his way to the shooting range.  Kristin felt the right side of her body weakening and going numb. She called Garey, who called 911. An ambulance took her to Good Samaritan Hospital in Watertown.

Tests revealed a blood clot in the frontal lobe of her brain, and she was transferred to Upstate, a designated stroke center.

SUNY Upstate Medical Technology

Kristin Tanyag with James Vossler, assistant professor of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, and classmate Christopher Roberts, in December 2011. Photo by Susan Kahn.

“I had a headache and it wouldn’t go away, but I didn’t think it could be anything serious,” Kristin said from her hospital bed last week.

Her parents, Henry and Ofelia Tanyag, flew in from California as planned. But instead of attending their daughter’s graduation, they spent several anxious days visiting her in the hospital. “We were worried, and cried the whole first day,” Ofelia Tanyag said.

“We were shocked that this could happen at such a young age,” her father said. “But she’s strong. Her speech has improved, and she has a strong handshake.”

No surgery was required. A regimen of medication and several hours a day of therapy – physical, occupational, speech and recreation – has paid dividends. “My right side was affected and my cognitive function was affected,” Kristin said. “Each day I’m improving. I notice slight improvements every day.”

Visitors in Caps and Gowns

Kristin’s Medical Technology classmates knew she was upset about missing Commencement. “We all felt bad about that,” said Matthew Jackson. “She deserved to be there.”

Matthew said Kristin is very modest, and didn’t tell anyone she was graduating summa cum laude. Her parents found out about that — and her 3.95 GPA — from her classmates. Two A-minuses were the only blemishes, if they can be called that, keeping her from a perfect 4.0.

“We worked so hard and got through the program together,” said Bryan Rudy. “We were together almost every day for two years, and she was supposed to sit next to me at graduation. I missed having her there.”

So the class brought the camaraderie of Commencement to her.

They showed up en masse at the hospital, still in their caps and gowns, to pose for photos. They wore yellow ribbons because that’s Kristin’s favorite color. Kristin couldn’t go to the grad party later that day at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, so her classmates gave her husband and parents food and cake to take to her.

The visits from classmates continued every day, even as many of them prepared to leave Syracuse for their new careers. “They’ve been taking care of me,” Kristin said, pointing out the stuffed animals and flowers in her hospital room.

Dr. Shernaz Hurlong, DO, Kristin’s primary physician in the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center, said Upstate “sees young strokes and brain injuries regularly” because it’s a designated stroke center, the region’s first.

Dr. Hurlong said her job as a rehabilitation physician is to plan and coordinate the best care for a person with a new functional limitation and facilitate recovery.

“Kristin is very diligent and determined in her recovery,” she said. “I am not surprised she was so highly liked and respected by her class. She made amazing progress every day and focused on the functional gains. She was not distracted by being a young stroke survivor; she stayed positive and worked hard with intensive daily therapy to make progress.”

Kristin, who was in the neurosurgery unit of Upstate University Hospital for several days before moving downstairs to the rehabilitation center, was allowed to walk independently to her therapy sessions on May 20. She was discharged May 23 and is back home with her husband.

“She has strong family support, and I am confident that she will continue to progress as she recovers from such a life-changing event,” Dr. Hurlong said. “I feel honored to be part of her care team and to have assisted with her recovery.”

The Journey Continues

Kristin still plans to take the national certification exam that would qualify her to work as a Medical Technologist in California, where she and Garey hope to move after he’s discharged from the Army early next year.

“She’s one of the most determined people you’ll ever meet,” said classmate Bryan Rudy. “She works really hard and never gives up. Once I saw how much she had improved since the first day we saw her in the hospital, I knew she’d be OK.”

Kristin said the medical setback has given her a new perspective.

“You think you’re invincible, that nothing bad will ever happen to you,” she said. “Then something like this happens and you want to live life to the fullest. I know that’s a cliché, but …”

If Kristin had been able to attend Commencement in the Mulroy Civic Center, she would have heard her classmate Angela Aponte’s words that seem especially fitting now.

“Our journey does not end here,” Angela said from the podium. “Graduates – no matter what profession you enter, stay focused. Be humble. Be observant. And remember that it takes a team to care for a patient.”


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