Ask Matthew Williamson how a young man deals with a cancer diagnosis, and he’ll fix his blue-green eyes on you. “Grace,” he’ll tell you. “Nothing else makes sense.”

Grace. It got him through the tough times, he says, and it gave him his calling — becoming a nurse.

Matthew, now 24 and a senior nursing student at UNCG, was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma at 15, when he was a sophomore in high school. It was Stage 3, which means it had invaded every part of his body except the bone marrow.

What caused his dry cough and tiredness was a tumor in his chest, necessitating chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

“Of course I had the natural human reaction, this is awful and my life is falling apart,” Matthew says. “But I finished high school. God was good. Extra good.”

Matthew came to UNCG as a music major, but his cancer had other plans for him. A recurrence necessitated high-dose chemotherapy and a transplant of his own bone marrow.

He spent 30 days in isolation at Duke Medical Center. He came to depend on the nurses who took care of him and to recognize the impact nurses make everyday.

“At this point it was obvious to me,” he says. “This is what I am supposed to do. I can reach patients better than most people.”

Nurses, even more than doctors, are in the trenches, Matthew says. “The nurse is there when you are doing nothing but throwing your guts up. As a nurse, you are in a position to say, ‘I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. Whatever you need, I’m here to give it.'”

So Matthew switched his major to nursing. He is a North Carolina Nurse Scholar and recipient of UNCG’s Tom F. Nolan Memorial Scholarship in Nursing, but his road to graduation, on track for May, remains an uphill struggle.

His cancer came back again in 2009, leading to a second bone marrow transplant — this time from donor bone marrow. This transplant has given him his donor’s healthy immune system, but also wiped out all of his existing immunities, including those gained from childhood innoculations.

Despite the risk to himself, he returned to the nursing program. Armed only with the immune system equivalent of a 2-year-old, he is completing clinicals at Cone Health System and working in Duke’s Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Unit, where he was once a patient.

“It’s like home to me,” he says. “”I can tell the kids, ‘Hey, this was my old room and all the drugs you are getting I’ve taken. It doesn’t last forever.’ I think it’s helpful to the entire team on the transplant floor because they usually see patients during the worst time and they are constantly surrounded by bad outcomes. When they have a bad day, I can walk by and it’s is a reminder that what they do each day does work.”

Photography by Chris English, University Relations