“Keep on smilin’ through the rain.
Laughin’ at the pain.
Just flowin’ with the changes
Till the sun comes out again.”
Wet Willie sang it in 1974. Sarah Veach has lived it since May 18, 2015.
That was the day she learned her three-month-old son, Jace, had retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer that eventually resulted in the loss of his right eye. The past year has been one filled with doctor’s visits, surgery, numerous rounds of chemotherapy treatments, five trips to the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia and even a diagnosis of cancer in Jace’s other eye.
Through it all, the 22-year-old senior middle grades education major from Williamsburg has persevered to maintain a 3.5 GPA as a member of EKU Honors, while splitting time between the convenience of EKU’s Corbin Regional Campus and long, lonely drives from her Whitley County home to the main campus in Richmond, often on little sleep.
Perhaps more impressively, Veach’s irrepressible spirit and sunny disposition are still distinguished by the same quick smile and infectious laugh, traits that have endeared her to peers and professors alike, especially those familiar with her struggles.
“Sarah is a visionary,” said Dr. Connie Hodge, assistant professor in the School of Clinical Educator Preparation and Veach’s thesis adviser. “She truly wants to become a wonderful middle grades teacher. She has a wonderful personality, an ‘I can do it’ attitude and compassion for others. Even with all the problems in dealing with her son through this illness, she always came to school with a smile on her face!”
While such personal adversity might cause others to lose focus, the events of the past year seem to have had the opposite effect on Veach.
“She has been through a lot with the illness of her child,” Hodge said, “but I think that she has found out that she can endure a lot and accomplish what she wants to do in life. She has specific goals that she wants to accomplish, and this has helped her to stay on track. She has certainly served as a role model for her peers.”
With the help of Hodge and others, Veach is also determined that more Kentuckians learn about the signs of retinoblastoma. Members of the Kentucky Education Association Student Program at the Corbin campus are making “Jace’s Story” the chapter’s service learning project, designing brochures to be delivered initially to day care facilities in Whitley, Laurel, Knox and Clay counties.
The 2012 Whitley County High School graduate said she has reminded herself often that “things happen for a reason. Sometimes I wonder how I’ve done this or that. It’s like I don’t remember the past year.”
What she does remember vividly is the kindness and compassion shown her by faculty members such as Hodge, Dr. Peggy McGuire and Sharon Ball at the Corbin campus.
“Everyone has been very understanding, very flexible with deadlines,” Veach said. “They want to see us succeed.”
“It’s just a close family at the Corbin campus,” she added. “I’ve been in the same classes with friends for years.”
EKU Honors, meanwhile, has helped Veach become a better writer. “Assignments come easier now. I can get things done quickly.”
Her participation in Honors also served as her pathway to an “eye-opening” course working with middle school students for the first time. In 2012, EKU secured a grant from the National Science Foundation to establish “SEEing Science in Appalachia: Serving, Exploring and Engaging in an Honors Interdisciplinary Science Course at Eastern Kentucky University.”
“Every class has been very unique,” she said. In more ways than one, it turned out. It also marked the first time she could look across a classroom and see an African-American student.
As Veach winds down her EKU studies with a student-teaching assignment at Corbin Middle School this fall, doctors expect to preserve the vision in Jace’s left eye. “They’re watching it closely,” she said.
Twenty years before Wet Willie, Nat King Cole sang a similar refrain:
"Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.”