From death's door to college degree, with help

Mar. 24, 2013 @ 04:38 AM

She seems to bounce into the room, so it’s only after Irene Caldwell tells you she has trouble walking that you notice any limp.

It’s not a bad limp, especially for someone who ought to be dead.

Things could be worse.

Among them, she could be sitting at home doing nothing, waiting for monthly disability checks for the rest of her life. Or avoiding that could have required her to pile up a mountain of debt.

She has been lucky or blessed on those accounts, and she knows it.

Caldwell is 43. But the story of her life now begins two years ago. In February 2011, she suffered a massive stroke but went about her day as though she was fine, numb leg and arm aside, even driving all the way Charlotte and only getting to a hospital that evening. Many people in Caldwell County know that part of her story – she tells almost everyone.

Death didn’t take her that day, but it took her job. Caldwell just didn’t know it yet.

Through her nine long months of physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, she hoped to return to her job as a case manager with the Department of Social Services, where she had worked for 13 years. But she wasn’t up to it. The stroke left her with disabilities that prevented her from being able to do the job.

It came as a serious blow.

“I was at the top of my game, working 50 hours a week. Down to nothing,” she said.

She was used to working with people, helping people. Doing nothing and living off of disability checks was not an attractive future.

“I decided to do something: Go back to school so my education could match my experience,” she said.

From the Foundation of CCC&TI she received an Anne and Alex Bernhardt Sr. Scholarship, which provides 10 students who are single parents up to $2,000 a year for tuition, books or other approved educational expenses.

As important to Caldwell, the scholarship provides a mentor who provides encouragement and helps make sure everything is on track. That is helpful because another memento of her brush with death is difficulty concentrating.

“Now it takes me longer. Where it would take you an hour to write and English paper, it takes me five,” she said. “I go to the tutors, and I stay in the tutor’s office.”

She started taking classes in 2011 and hopes to receive her associate’s degree in 2014, then transfer to Appalachian State University and pursue a degree in social work. Her goal is to be a school social worker like her twin sister, Carrie Foddrell, who works at Hudson Elementary and Hudson Middle schools.

She doesn’t like to think about what she would have done without the scholarship.

“I wouldn’t have done anything. I couldn’t have done anything. … I would be sitting at home, … or I would be in debt up the wazoo,” she said. “I had to come to school. I had to do something, and that’s the only thing I could do.”