Last summer, Dr. William Bradley had just been hired for a one-year appointment as the coordinator of Heidelberg’s Writing Center. Although he knew there was a lot of work ahead to publicize and promote the center as an excellent resource for ‘Berg students, he was thrilled about the opportunity.
William had worked in writing centers on college campuses previously; he and his wife, Dr. Emily Isaacson, director of Heidelberg’s Honors Program and a professor of English, had even created a center at a former school.
“It didn’t feel like work because I was doing something that really mattered to me,” he said. “I was really confident and happy.”
Things were going well – until cancer threw him a major curve ball. In early November, he was writing an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books when he froze. As he described it, “There was a phrase in my head that just wouldn’t come out.”
He excused it away as writer’s block. But when the barrier between his brain and his fingers happened again, he got worried. That night, as he tried to tell Emily what was happening, he had a seizure and woke up in an ambulance on his way to the hospital.
A CT scan revealed a small but significant lesion near the language center of his brain, a tiny spot on his lung and lymph node involvement. He had surgery the next day to remove the brain lesion, followed by radiation and chemotherapy treatment.
“The surgery left me with a very damaged memory,” William said.
Many members of the Heidelberg community and William and Emily’s extended family were there to help them through the dark days – even if he doesn’t recall many of the details. The first hospital visits were from colleagues Rev. Paul and Dr. Traci Stark. “I knew Traci and Paul were our friends and I knew Paul was a minister, but that was all,” William said. “It was very embarrassing not to remember their names.”
When they returned home from the hospital, the meals started arriving from ‘Berg colleagues and friends. On more than one occasion, they jumped in to take William to doctor’s appointments when Emily had teaching commitments.
“Because I lacked language abilities and memory, Emily had to care for me in a way she had not to in the past. Everyone really made her life easier, since I was not capable of doing anything,” William said.
On campus, colleagues made sure that Emily’s students had everything they needed, particularly her English Department colleagues and Associate Dean Dr. Vicki Ohl. Dr. Julie O’Reilly stepped in to advise The Kilikilik, one of William’s responsibilities, until he could return. Many others extended prayers and sent notes of encouragement.
We never felt isolated,” Emily said. “A lot of people, largely faculty, came together to make our lives as easy as possible in a particularly difficult time.
William had dealt with cancer diagnoses three times before, but this time the support was different.
“We never really felt concern and support like this. It really made the whole experience more bearable,” he said.
During his recovery, William worried about the Writing Center. After all, it was November; the end of the semester and finals were just around the corner. But as it turned out, he didn’t need to be anxious. The student workers there handled everything beautifully.
I can’t say enough about the students who work in the Writing Center. There was no coordinator there, but they did the work and the students got the assistance they needed.
He also found empathy and a surprising measure of understanding from students in the 100-level English class he was teaching in the spring semester. During a particularly difficult class, material he had been teaching for 15-plus years escaped him. He muddled through, but the next day he leveled with his students about his illness and its after-effects.
I was worried about sharing something that intimate, but they were so kind and understanding, and very compassionate,” he said. “The students became a lot more engaged after I was that honest with them.
Thankfully, in the seven-plus months since that terrifying night, William has reacquired nearly all of the skills he lost, and his writing ability has returned. There’s a lot to look forward to as he’ll join the English Department as an adjunct professor in the fall.
Adversity often reveals a silver lining – or for William and Emily, several of them.
“There was a core group of people who really supported us throughout, and we just really appreciate it,” he said.
Inside Higher Ed recently published William's essay about perspective he gained during his illness and recovery.