Heading back to the classroom as a mature student can be stressful enough for the best of us, especially when it comes to balancing schoolwork with familial obligations.
But Red River College alumna Anna Marie Prince had an even tougher time than most: Her husband was hospitalized with a life-threatening kidney disease just months after her program’s start date, requiring her to squeeze a risky organ transplant into her already hectic schedule.
“I remember we were going through our final tissue tests, and she was reading a textbook while we were doing it,” says Anna Marie’s husband, Edward Prince, for whom she bravely served as an organ donor in December 2008.
“I told the doctor, ‘Don’t mind her – she’s studying for a test!’”
A former resident of Peguis First Nation, Anna Marie entered RRC’s Dental Assisting – Level II program in the fall of 2008, having spent the bulk of her life raising a family and working managerial jobs at restaurants.
“I’d never chosen a career where I could concentrate my interests, so I told (my husband), ‘I’d like to go back to school,’” says Anna Marie. “He was a retired career counselor, so he said, ‘Well, why don’t you?’”
Initially, Anna Marie found it a challenge trying to re-adjust to academic life, though her maternal instincts quickly kicked in once she and her classmates fell into a rhythm together. That routine was thrown for a serious loop, however, when her husband’s diabetes caused his kidneys to fail.
Though Edward had asked his family members (he and Anna Marie have six grown children, four of them from previous marriages) not to consider donating their own organs, Anna Marie nonetheless underwent compatibility tests on the sly. She soon learned she was a match, and even managed to schedule the transplant surgeries for the first day of her Christmas break.
“I told him, ‘Today is what I’m considering, not tomorrow,’” she recalls. “Considering a tomorrow without you is not an option.”
Thankfully, the surgery went off without a hitch. In fact, doctors told the couple the transplanted kidney began functioning almost immediately, noting the process usually takes a matter of hours, or even days.
But the surgery’s outcome – and Anna Marie’s incredible sacrifice – really aren’t that surprising when you consider the couple’s history, which is rife with eerie examples of predestination. (Though they grew up on different reserves, both Anna Marie and Edward shared the same treaty number. And decades before they’d even met, an ancestor of Anna Marie’s actually played lifesaver to one of Edward’s, driving the man to a nearby doctor even though the two were barely acquainted.)
Edward’s illness wasn’t the only obstacle Anna Marie faced while completing her studies. Her birth mother also fell ill with cancer, and died before the year was through.
Thanks to the support of her instructors and classmates, she found the strength to make it through the year, eventually graduating with both a Dental Assisting Program Award (from RRC) and a Gift of Life medal (from Transplant Manitoba) under her belt.
She’s now working at Children’s Dental World on McPhillips Street, a job she describes as a perfect fit given her prior experience with kids – including one particularly agitated young girl she encountered during a student training session at Health Sciences Centre.
“I have never had to work harder to talk someone down in all my life,” she recalls with a laugh. “I had to draw on all my life experiences, every funny story I could think of, to get that child to calm down. But the instructors said I was amazing, and the doctors even noticed and said I’d done really well.”
“That was when I knew I was in the right place – the confirmation I needed – and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
These days, Anna Marie takes pride in turning kids’ dental appointments into “an adventure,” and in helping make the experience more comfortable for Northern Manitoba residents, who may have little previous experience with dental offices or medical equipment.
Needless to say, she’s also proud of the time she spent at Red River College, and in seeing her coursework through to completion, despite all the life-and-death distractions.
“I remember when I first got here (to RRC) and saw all the pictures of graduates on the wall, I said, ‘I want to be up there,” says Anna Marie.
“I’d see women who were my age or a little older, and I’d say, ‘That’s going to be me.’”
Click here for more information about RRC’s Dental Assisting program.