Faculty Member Thankful for Colleagues, Students and Second Chance

By Veronique Masterson

UTEP News Service

Ana Schwartz, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at The University of Texas at El Paso, received a fairly routine surgery in August to remove pre-cancerous tissue. However, an error during surgery, undetected at the time, caused her abdomen to fill with infection.

Six weeks later she was re-admitted to the hospital and it was discovered that she had peritonitis, a condition that would have taken her life had it gone undiagnosed for even a few more days.Ana Schwartz, Ph.D., visits one of her classes after being away for health reasons. Her colleagues and students took care of her and her son, Diego, while she was recovering. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceAna Schwartz, Ph.D., visits one of her classes after being away for health reasons. Her colleagues and students took care of her and her son, Diego, while she was recovering. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

Schwartz received a second surgery to clean the infection, during which the doctors struggled to keep her vitals strong. They said she was fortunate to have survived the surgery but doubted she would regain full function of her left kidney. They told her the road to recovery would be long, and Schwartz feared for her ability to continue to take care of her son and the logistics of delegating her work responsibilities.

The feelings of fear and isolation were quickly erased, thanks to her friends and colleagues at UTEP.

As soon as they found out about her condition, members of the UTEP Psychology Department united to take turns teaching Schwartz’s classes every week. Professor Steve Crites, Ph.D., coordinated with other faculty members to teach her graduate course and Professor Wendy Francis, Ph.D., immediately agreed to teach her undergraduate course. At the same time, Ashley Bangert, Ph.D., research assistant professor for the department, and Penny Graves, administrative assistant, were instrumental in leading the efforts to take care of her. They organized shifts to make sure someone was with Schwartz at home or in the hospital when she needed it, lifted her spirits, maintained her home when needed, took her 7-year-old son to school, and brought them food. Fortunately, it didn’t take much convincing to find help. Undergraduate, graduate, current and former students and faculty worked together like a family taking care of a loved one.

“She has no family here in El Paso and I was determined she would not go through this alone,” Graves said.

Schwartz is a single mom from the Northeast United States. She has taught at UTEP for seven years and considers El Paso to be her home.

When she had her third and final surgery in November, Schwartz said her spirits were down and she was in horrible pain. The doctors told her to walk around even if she didn’t feel like it. Just the thought made Schwartz cringe. Little did she know that strength was only a few minutes away.

Graves made a surprise visit, but said she found Schwartz overcome with worry about how she was going to take care of herself and her son.

“I found her in her hospital room crying,” Graves said. She immediately took action and told Schwartz, “That’s it! You will not worry about any of this anymore. I will take the next couple of days off and I will stay with you.”

This lifted Schwartz’s spirits and gave her the strength to get out of bed and take five steps. The next day, Graves visited again and gave Schwartz the strength to take 15 steps.

This holiday season is extra special for her for a multitude of reasons.

“Everyone goes through something scary at one point in their lives – something that jolts them to the core – and it was my turn,” Schwartz said. “And you come out of it with such a fresh, beautiful perspective on life.”

With renewed strength and vision, Schwartz surprised one of her classes with a visit in late November. She said she wanted to thank them and tell them how much better she felt.

Kimberly Edwards, a senior psychology major, was relieved to see her professor and mentor back on her feet and in the classroom. The student remembers when she sent an email to Schwartz to check up on her after she missed class the first time.

“I got an immediate, automated email saying she was on medical leave,” Edwards recalled. “That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

After giving Schwartz a big hug, Edwards said having the professor back was “a blessing.”

Schwartz expects to resume teaching in the spring semester.