Graduation signifies success: Books read, assignments completed, tests passed, games won, friends made. Grab that diploma and go forth.
Another layer of achievement exists for Samantha (Sammie) Duerring. The recent Meredith College graduate did it all, blind. At her side, every minute — Princess, her MIRA guide dog. Had coronavirus not prevented a traditional ceremony, Princess would have crossed the stage with Sammie to receive their diploma — the first step towards her dream of becoming a physician.
Imagine the ovation.
Even without that priceless photo op, applause is in order. Because Sammie’s CV reads like a can-do who’s who.
Sammie, the Duerring’s fourth child, 28 years younger than their first, was born 12 weeks premature weighing just over 2 pounds. At 3 months she was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).
“I was devastated,” Sammie’s mother Judy Duerring recalls. “My husband was in the military. I was alone when I found out. I prayed a lot and kept researching.”
By third grade, Sammie’s teachers informed the family “Your daughter has what it takes.”
Later on, she qualified as academically gifted, graduating from Union Pines High School with honors.
Although legally blind, until now Sammie has been able to see some light, shadows and bright colors up close. In the past year she has undergone two surgeries which may help retain this slight vision.
Being paired with Princess in high school changed her life.
“I had a cane,” she says. “People avoid you like the plague. I’d just sit in a corner.”
Until college, Sammie had never been to a party, even a children’s birthday party.
“Nobody knew what to do with me,” she says.
Sammie recalls that it took about a year for the pair to click.
“Now, (Princess) is like a limb that’s not attached to me.”
MIRA, a Canadian nonprofit that breeds, trains and matches dogs with visually impaired 11-to-18-year-olds, is the only guide-dog organization serving children. Training each sturdy, calm, friendly Bernese Mountain-Lab mix costs about $60,000. Recipients pay nothing.
MIRA Foundation USA is located in Pinehurst, with the training center in Quebec. Sammie’s trip there for the month-long session was her first experience away from home.
Her second: Meredith, chosen for its small, enclosed campus and all-girl student body.
But on that first night in the dorm, “I was terrified, like what have I gotten myself into?”
As it turns out, nothing she couldn’t conquer. Since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, a disability may not be taken into consideration if the applicant is academically qualified. The institution is required to provide accommodations, which included Braille buttons on the dorm microwave and designated toileting spots for Princess, who quickly became a campus queen. Sammie had access to recording devices, talking textbooks, an audio iPhone and a peer notetaker. As a pre-med biology major, her course load was formidable. Envision calculus and an organic chemistry lab … blind.
“But I never felt so overwhelmed that I wanted to quit,” she says.
The Pilot began telling Sammie’s story in 2016, during that first semester, with a follow-up her sophomore year.
After about a month, supported by Meredith disabilities staff, Sammie felt oriented and comfortable in her dorm and on campus. Freshman year she came home most weekends. By senior year, almost never.
Sammie made dean’s list. She also made friends. They ate in restaurants, went to the movies, gathered for hall socials where she played guitar.
However, Sammie’s eyes were always on the prize.
“I became friends with an anatomy lab assistant who took me to an osteopathic medical school in South Carolina. I got to hold a human brain in my hands.” That, Sammie says, was a highlight of her life, along with dissecting the lens of a sheep’s eye and performing a spinal tap, at Meredith.
“You have to feel to do that. I nailed it,” she says with a huge grin.
“That’s the kind of thing that gets Sammie excited,” her mother adds.
That, and cell biology, according to her academic adviser and professor Dr. Karthik Aghoram.
“Sammie thinks about biological problems in such a creative, innovative way,” he begins. “For an honors program, Sammie had to do extra work. She decided to write a story about antibodies, sort of an autobiography of how they work. She took a complex subject and broke it down.” Then, “She gave it a really cool name — it read like a fantasy novel.”
As for her honors thesis, Aghoram says, “She wrote the most ready-to-submit thesis I have read in 15 years of teaching.”
Beyond her scientific prowess, Aghoram enjoyed his student’s sense of humor. At first he tiptoed around politically correct euphemisms like “sight impaired.” To put him at ease Sammie retorted, “Just call me blind.”
“Her enthusiasm is infectious. She’s like a sponge that absorbs everything,” Aghoram says.
With graduation comes reassessment. Sammie has planned on a medical career since early teens. She needs a second organic chemistry course before taking the MCATs (Medical College Admissions Test). But first a gap year when she hopes to attend the Colorado Center for the Blind Independence Training Program for Adults, where for six months attendees live in apartments, learn to navigate public transportation, shop for groceries, prepare meals and maximize computer skills. She’s interested in therapeutic massage. She loves being around her nieces and nephews and, as an M.D., might consider pediatrics or psychiatry as a specialty. While at Union Pines she raised money to provide another child with a MIRA dog. Recently, Sammie donated 15 inches of her trademark hip-length honey-blonde hair to Wigs for Kids, an organization providing hairpieces, free, to children undergoing chemotherapy.
This summer Sammie wants to shadow a physician, any specialty, to get a taste of the real thing.
Another change in the foreseeable future: When Princess reaches retirement age Sammie will be long past 18, therefore no longer eligible for a MIRA dog. The family wants to keep Princess as a beloved pet but how Sammie’s needs will be met is uncertain.
This amazing young woman may not feel overwhelmed, but her accomplishments overwhelm others.
“Nothing seems to get her down,” says Carolyn Koning, assistant director for disability services at Meredith. “Her spirit is absolutely incredible, her willingness to work hard.”
Still, is medical school a realistic outcome?
“Absolutely,” Aghoram replies, emphatically. “I am a scientist. I know what Sammie is capable of. She can accomplish anything.”
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.