Chelsea Umbach would rather be anywhere but here: A 12-by-12-foot hospital room where, for some 70 days, she’s been awaiting a desperately needed heart and lung transplant. Her 21-year-old body has fought pulmonary hypertension for almost as long as it can.
|Flowers Braswell (far left in top photo) teaches her Bibliography & Research Seminar class in Sterne Library — and to student Chelsea Umbach through videoconferencing. Umbach is in in UAB Hospital awaiting a heart and lung transplant. |
One of Umbach’s professors, Flowers Braswell, Ph.D., remembers what it’s like to be in such a situation. Her husband John had a kidney transplant 13 years ago after an agonizing wait of more than six months.
“The wait is just a feeling of total helplessness,” she says.
Braswell, a professor of arts and humanities, and Umbach crossed paths a few months ago when the student enrolled in Braswell’s research seminar. When Umbach informed her professor she would be entering the hospital to await her transplant after the first class meeting of the year, Braswell sprang into action.
Thanks to Braswell’s efforts, Umbach, an English literature major, is continuing to take the professor’s Bibliography & Research Seminar through videoconferencing from Sterne Library. Every Tuesday afternoon Umbach fires up her laptop and enters a Web site address – then up pops a picture of the classroom. She puts on the headset attached to her telephone, calls into the classroom a la teleconference, and instantly becomes a student in the class.
“We can’t see her, but we can hear her and she can see us,” Braswell says. “Really we just walk into class and everyone says ‘Hello, Chelsea’ and she says ‘Hello.’ Chelsea makes comments and we respond to her comments.
“It’s just like Chelsea’s here. She’s just another student in this class, which is very enriching for all of us – and I think for her as well.”
Old grant still pays off
Braswell actually got the idea to try videoconferencing because she still had some old equipment remaining from a grant she received from the Office of the Provost several years ago.
The grant resulted in a program called “Eureka!” (eureka.mhsl.uab.edu), which was geared toward local 12th grade teachers. Before the program ended, Braswell was videoconferencing with a class at Oak Mountain High School. Oak Mountain teacher Linda Martin would teach a high-school class on Chaucer one day, and Braswell would “come into” the classroom the next day via videoconferencing and teach Martin’s students a college-level class on the same material.
“I was able to do it from my office,” she says. “I could see the class through the hook-up on my own computer, and they could see me on the television screen. It’s like what Chelsea’s doing now.”
When she realized the current use to which she could put the equipment, Braswell contacted Sterne Library Director Jerry Stephens, Ph.D. He jumped at the opportunity to help Braswell teach Umbach by wiring a room in the library so it would be compatible with the equipment.
Class a welcome break
Umbach had open-heart surgery when she was 1-year-old. Her condition worsened as she got older, and at the age of 15 she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a rare blood vessel disorder of the lung in which the pressure in the pulmonary artery rises above normal levels and may become life-threatening. The disease normally affects women in their childbearing years.
Shortness of breath with minimal exertion is the primary symptom of the disease, along with fatigue, chest pain, dizzy spells and fainting. Pulmonary hypertension is a rare disease, occurring in about six persons per million per year, according to Raymond Benza, M.D., director of the pulmonary vascular disease program at UAB and one of Umbach’s physicians.
Umbach, who takes 27 pills a day and two IV drugs per day, welcomes the chance to participate in school. She is taking three courses this fall, including American Literature from 1820-1860 and 18th Century British Literature and Culture. Randa Graves, Ph.D., and Gale Temple, Ph.D., are her instructors for those classes, which are lecture-based. She doesn’t use the equipment for those classes – “I really don’t need to,” she says – but says it would be impossible for her to take the Research Seminar without it.
“The class is bibliography and research,” she says. “We’re looking at Web sites, archival manuscripts and tons of other stuff on the Web or from the library. It’s a hands-on class.”
Braswell often sends handouts to Umbach. And if something comes up in class that Umbach needs to see more closely, students change the camera’s placement or scan and e-mail her any documents they are discussing.
“One day I had the students pull several bibliographies from the shelf, and when we talked about one of the books a student would hold the book up to the camera so Chelsea could see it,” Braswell says. “By the time the class was over Chelsea knew as much about the books as the students who had been in class.”
An ‘A’ student
Umbach hopes she will receive her organs before Christmas. It’s what she prays for each day. Even if she does, though, there is a good likelihood she won’t be able to attend classes in person next semester, either. But of course that’s not an obstacle for Umbach and Braswell: Umbach already is signed up to take Braswell’s Medieval Revival Seminar.
“What is such a delight to me about this is that Chelsea is a wonderful student – an A student,” Braswell says.
“That’s a bonus. She does every bit of the work and she does it beautifully.”
Umbach says she’s happy to have the chance to continue her education through the help of her professors. Besides, she’s got big plans once she leaves UAB Hospital.
“Getting to do this means I’m not wasting my life away,” Umbach says. “I will be educated and able to continue my life once I get out.
“Really, I can’t thank Dr. Braswell enough because she totally jumped on the ball. She knows what it’s like to go through a transplant and be in the hospital.”