Like most college students, Heather Capezzuti has been navigating college life through a pandemic. The experience, though, for the Lock Haven University nursing senior and soon-to-be graduate was not even “typical,” given COVID-19. It was just one of several “uncommon” challenges Capezzuti had to endure during her time at The Haven.
Nursing was not the first career choice for Capezzuti, of DuBois. For nearly 30 years, she was a science teacher and school administrator in Pittsburgh. In the spring of 2020, the school board voted to close the campus where she had been working. Divorced, and with her youngest child graduating high school, she suddenly found herself looking for a change. It was the perfect opportunity to pursue a new career and return to the classroom — as a student.
Capezzuti began her classes as a “non-traditional” college student online at LHU Clearfield in the fall of 2020, as the world was trying to adjust to and manage the uncertainties of a global pandemic.
In August of 2021, Capezzuti finally joined her classmates in person to start the new academic year. However, that excitement was tempered less than three months later, when she received life-changing and devastating news. Capezzuti was diagnosed with anal cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) in early November 2021, a diagnosis that would force many students to stop their educational pursuit in its tracks.
But because she received an early diagnosis, she was able to begin treatments almost right away, which consisted of two rounds of chemotherapy at the beginning and end of 28 days of radiation treatments.
Capezzuti completed the fall 2021 semester in person, but switched to a mainly synchronous Zoom format for the spring 2022 semester. “When I informed my nursing instructors of my diagnosis, they assured me that they would find a way to continue to support my studies so that I could remain in the program,” she said.
Every Monday through Friday from December 2021 through mid-January 2022, Capezzuti went to Penn Highlands Hahne Cancer Center for treatment. After her chemotherapy and radiation treatments ended, she continued to go to the hospital through February and March for bloodwork and receive IV medication and fluids to help with side effects.
Because she was immune-compromised and physically weakened by the treatments, she had to postpone her required clinical time in the hospital. However, with the full support and determination to help from her instructors, she plans to complete her hours later this spring and summer at PH DuBois in the labor and delivery unit.
“Being able to stay in the nursing program provided a healthy distraction and a sense of purpose for me during and after my treatments,” Capezzuti said. “I am a firm believer that setting goals and having a sense of purpose is what drives us to be better and allows us to live meaningful, satisfying and happy lives.”
Capezzuti said the most meaningful gesture on the part of her instructors, was that they allowed her to participate in the Pinning Ceremony held Wednesday, May 11 at the Clearfield campus.
“Heather is amazing. The challenges that she faced this year were enormous,” said Dr. Darlene Ardary, LHU nursing faculty member. “Yet, she continued to excel in the nursing program, which is not easy. She is a true inspiration!”
Pushing through her own personal challenges while pursuing a nursing degree — during a global pandemic, undergoing cancer treatment and maintaining a 4.0 grade point average, Capezzuti remains inspired by the strength and passion of her classmates.
“No doubt, the LHU ASN (Associate of Science in Nursing) Class of 2022 will be an amazing bunch of nurses,” Capezzuti said. “Getting through these last two years of a rigorous nursing program during the COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to their grit and passion for taking care of others in need. I will be forever grateful for my classmates’ love and support during some of my most challenging times.”
Still not “out of the woods,” Capezzuti will undergo a biopsy in late June to see if the chemotherapy and radiation were effective in removing all of the cancer.
“Life rarely ever ends up exactly as we plan, as many curveballs will be thrown our way,” she said. “However, each challenge can give us the opportunity to learn and become more empathetic toward others if we choose to take it.”
Capezzuti said the love and support from her family and friends help her to maintain a positive mindset, which is an important part of recovery and staying healthy. Her parents, Jennie B and John Schwartz; her sister, Krista Compton; and her children Isaac and Sophie, along with her golden doodle, Lucy, all played a significant part in supporting her throughout her journey and continue to do so. Staying active also is helpful for recovery, as she enjoys yoga, baking, nature and getting outside — hiking, biking, kayaking and walking her dog.
“Life dealt me an interesting hand of cards,” she said. “The question is, how can I best play those cards to make the most positive impact during my lifetime? Nursing is one path to realizing this goal as it is one of the most honorable and trustworthy professions. I am grateful that LHU gave me the chance to be a part of it.”
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