While university life is full of a series of highlights, it can also provide its challenges – and for Primary PGCE student Madeline Fiera, health issues were an additional obstacle to tackle during her studies at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
In 2016 and during her third year on the BA Early Childhood and Educational Studies course, the now 27-year-old was diagnosed with Neurogenic Thoracic Outlet Syndrome – a neurological condition which has painful symptoms including numbness, tingling, pain, chest pain, facial swelling and flushing.
Maddi, who was awarded a first class honours degree explains: "I started to get severe arm pain on my left side. This progressed in a matter of weeks and if I used my arm it would instantly go dead and cause me a great deal of pain.
"I struggled to get around with the pain and found finishing my degree a challenge but I persevered with wonderful support from my tutors, friends and family. I already had my place on the PGCE but I kept in contact with everyone on the course as I was undergoing diagnosis and was able to defer for a year.
"It took a long time to diagnose seeing a range of specialists. It became so specialised that I flew to America (where my father resides) to see specialists in Chicago where I lived for four years from when I was 18. They then sent me to a specialist clinic in St. Louis where they decided I needed surgery."
Maddi had several jobs as a nanny, teaching assistant and then lead teacher while she was in the States but knew she wanted to qualify in Cardiff and attended a day-long interview with Cardiff Met's June Hurcom and Programme Director Cheryl Anthony for the popular PGCE Primary course in December 2015. Cheryl Anthony enabled Maddi to defer her place in September 2016 and then when it came to starting in 2017, Cardiff Met's Sian Davies-Barnes was on hand to advise Maddi.
Maddi said: "I was devastated to have to defer, as it was something I desperately wanted to do but my health had to come first, and the university couldn't have been more understanding.
"The surgery was more severe than I imagined. Having my first rib removed, 80% of my scalene muscles and half of my pectoral muscle, and removal of the damaging scar tissue constricting the nerves and arteries in my thoracic region. I had many severe complications and had to spend quite a long time recovering in the States.
"Due to the diagnosis taking so long they had suspected I had Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) due to the damage to my nerves. However, the surgery further irritated this area and as a result I now have this condition. This means I am in constant pain, it can be stabbing, crushing, constricting or burning. I get facial pain and swelling, the slightest touch can be extremely painful. I have problems with vision in my left eye and this can all make me very tired."
Maddi has volunteered at Cardiff's Lakeside Primary School, has worked as a 1:1 at Pontprennau Primary and current placements have included Birchgrove and St David's CIW Primary schools.
She said: "CRPS is worsened by stress as its damage to your sympathetic nervous system. I was advised that the PGCE wouldn't be the right path for me. However, it had been my dream to be a teacher and I knew it was another challenge I had to overcome. It has been the hardest year of my life, I've struggled in so many ways. I've felt inadequate at times in my ability as there would be some nights I would go home and straight to bed because the pain was so bad. However, this course and this career path has been the best choice I have ever made. When I am doing something, I love (teaching) it makes the pain bearable.
Maddi is currently applying for positions in September and plans to volunteer at her old school in Chicago before then. She also hopes to eventually do her Masters course in Additional Learning Needs and be an Additional Learning Needs Coordinator once in a job.
Maddi's tutor Kris Sobol, Senior Lecturer in Education and Social Policy added: "Maddi is a model for all in her strength of character and determination to overcome extremely painful health issues and fulfil her dream of becoming a primary school teacher.
"Despite these significant challenges she has achieved Grade 1 in all 5 NQT Standards and I have never been so amazed and inspired by a student as I have with Maddi. Her commitment to her professional development and her learners has been outstanding. Even when offered the opportunity to take a break she refused and pushed on."