Inspiring grads: Athlete fights cancer on path to becoming nurse

Mikailla Northern (Photo: Fan Wang)

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Mikailla Northern’s journey to becoming a nurse started in high school, after she tore an Achilles tendon for the second time.

“I had surgery to get it repaired,” said Northern, a gymnast since she was 2. “It was my first surgery so I had no idea what to expect, but the nurses were so welcoming. I wanted to be like them and I felt, with my character, I could.”

The experience was compelling. Only a few months later, Northern committed to UIC, a university about 300 miles from her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.

In the years after, she juggled academics and the responsibilities of becoming a student-athlete: 20 hours of training a week, along with exams, homework, clinicals and classes — and then life got harder.

In August 2018, Northern was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“It was crazy and unexpected,” said Northern, whose diagnosis came after a routine checkup. She had surgery less than two weeks later, when doctors removed her thyroid and 18 lymph nodes.

“I had to take six weeks off of gymnastics,” Northern said, sharing that uncontrolled neck or head movement was out of the question, and more radioactive treatments followed.

As an outstanding student, an accomplished competitor for her team and a gymnast near the peak of her career, “it was hard,” said Northern, and it still is.

“My metabolism and energy levels were different, it was harder to keep myself going to practice and tough because I had been training my entire summer,” she said. “To take a break was basically starting over, and for school, I had to jump back into things and figure out my clinicals.”

But her oasis of positivity was impossible to put off balance.

“I just had to take the steps to get back to school and gymnastics,” she said. “I stayed positive and trusted my doctor and the process.”

Her family, friends, teammates, UIC Athletics and even some professors were also there for support, checking in, writing letters, making accommodations, and even raising awareness for those fighting similar battles.

Although Northern can’t say she’s cancer free just yet, her treatments have been successful.

Northern is also graduating in May from the College of Nursing with a high GPA, a number of accolades from her time as a student-athlete, and plans to become pediatric nurse, a specialty she found a passion for through her clinical rotations.

“All of the experiences I’ve had here at UIC, it’s already helped me become successful and has shaped my character. It’s shaped up what I’m going to become, to help me become a better nurse and a better person,” she said.