Nicole McDaniel just finished the two busiest years of her life. And now she's recovering, impatiently waiting to get on with the next phase of her career.
McDaniel has worked at Elgin Mental Health Center for 22 years. She is a security therapy aide and has been since she was hired not too long after graduating high school.
The Elgin woman has had her eye on nursing for a long time and with a nursing license in hand, she hopes to shift away from the psychiatric field into labor and delivery.
McDaniel said the birthing process is inspiring to her and far more attractive than working in an emergency room dealing with sickness and death.
"I would rather see life," McDaniel said. "I would rather see happy tears as opposed to families grieving."
Before she can look for a new job, though, McDaniel must heal from a surgery in March that removed her thyroid gland but caused nerve damage around her vocal chords. For now she has to speak and breathe through a tube in her neck, rather than her mouth and nose.
McDaniel started experiencing symptoms of hyperthyroidism early in her nursing program at Elgin Community College. She was working full time at the mental health center, going to school full time, studying up to 40 hours each week and raising three teenage sons.
The symptoms of Grave's Disease, caused by overactive thyroid functioning, first seemed like heart problems. McDaniel went to the hospital several times thinking she was having a heart attack but her tests kept coming back normal.
"It was very frustrating to be having these heart issues and be told nothing was wrong," McDaniel said.
Her shakiness, weight loss, racing heart and hair loss all made sense in the context of hyperthyroidism when certain hormone levels finally led doctors to the root cause. Being the busy student she was, McDaniel scheduled surgery to remove the gland March 22 -- during her spring break -- expecting to miss only one class and then be back to graduate with the rest of her class.
She still graduated on time -- with honors! -- but only after several days in a medically induced coma, two weeks in the hospital, and lessons on how to breathe through a tracheostomy tube.
McDaniel managed to make up three missed exams and four clinical dates in two weeks while studying for the regularly scheduled tests and finishing her program.
Friends and family say her voice is back to normal now but it'll take another couple months for the nerves in her vocal chords to regenerate and regain full functioning. Until then she can't go back to work -- where the tracheostomy tube leaves her too vulnerable -- and she can't find a new job in a hospital rife with the dangers of infection.
Unfortunately that leaves McDaniel with only half her salary to pay all the same bills, though she is thankful she can collect even that much of her wages through temporary disability.
"I don't know what to do, but I figure I got through the surgery; I'm still here," McDaniel said. "As long as I'm alive I can try to make it work somehow."
What she does know is she's not done with school. McDaniel will start a bachelor's in nursing program online through Purdue University next spring. Then she'll go for her master's in nursing, though she hasn't decided where yet.
"I just figure why not?" McDaniel said. "I can be sitting at home doing nothing or I can be bettering myself."