More than 1,200 FGCU students graduate Sunday

Scott McIntyre/Staff
Sabrina Puhr gets a congratulatory hug from Abbe Finn following the 2012 Spring graduation commencement at Florida Gulf Coast University on on Sunday April 29, 2012. Puhr completed her course work towards her masters degree in mental health counseling while battling breast cancer.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff Sabrina Puhr gets a congratulatory hug from Abbe Finn following the 2012 Spring graduation commencement at Florida Gulf Coast University on on Sunday April 29, 2012. Puhr completed her course work towards her masters degree in mental health counseling while battling breast cancer.

When Sabrina Puhr called her professor to tell her she'd been diagnosed with stage four metastatic breast cancer, the professor recommended she take a brief leave from her master's program.

"You don't want to go to war when you're fighting two battles," Abbe Finn, an FGCU education professor, told her last July.

On Sunday, after almost 10 months of racing from work to school to treatments, studying at the doctor's office and pushing through on days she wanted to give up, the 50-year-old Puhr turned the light blue tassel on her mortarboard. She smiled and walked across the stage at Alico Arena in a black cap and gown, one of more than 1,200 new graduates of Florida Gulf Coast University.

Puhr was determined to stay in school, to balance the 60-hour mental health counseling program with her cancer treatments and full-time job working with homeless mentally disabled adults at Renaissance Manor.

"I just said, 'I'm going to do it. I'm going to go as far as I can go,'" Puhr recalled.

Puhr said she couldn't believe she'd made it.

"I didn't think I would see this point," she said. "But I did."

During Sunday's ceremony, speakers commended the graduates for their determination and tenacity. State Sen. Garret Richter, R-Naples, referred several times to the challenges of multitasking in college, saying "you graduates know what it's like to juggle multiple balls in the air at one time."

That rang especially true for Puhr. Since the diagnosis, her life has been a balancing act of doctor's appointments, internships and studying.

While undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatment, Puhr set up her own "little office" at the doctor's office, spreading out her school and work notes while waiting for each of 10 rounds of chemotherapy treatments.

"I must have driven the staff crazy," she said with a laugh.

But staying busy, Puhr said, kept her from falling into depression about the diagnosis – though she admits to the occasional crying spell.

"I didn't want to stop my life," Puhr said. "I just didn't want to stop my life and be a cancer patient."

It isn't over yet. Still ahead are summer classes, and a mastectomy — a date for that hasn't yet been set — but she's doing well after the treatments. She's quick to smile and laugh, and positive about the future.

She's been an inspiration to the clients she serves — many of whom struggle with mental illness and other challenges — and to her friends.

"I think there's a miracle here, because you just look at that situation and I don't think you'd find anybody else who's gone through that," said Janet Sanders, who collected donations to help with Puhr's medical expenses.

Puhr says that without the support from FGCU faculty, her coworkers and friends like Sanders, she wouldn't have made it.

Sanders was there Sunday, watching from the stands as Puhr crossed the stage. And Finn was there, too.

"A student like her, you really want to be there for her graduation," Finn said, "because, by golly, it's an accomplishment."

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