#UPGraduation2021: Master’s student overcomes stroke to graduate

Posted on September 17, 2021

In the face of overwhelming odds, Denis Mitole, who suffered a stroke that left him able to type his master’s dissertation using only one hand, is now the proud holder of a master’s degree in Tax from the University of Pretoria (UP).

When the Malawian-born Mitole, who holds a Bachelor of Social Science degree from the University of Cape Town and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of the Western Cape, decided to enrol in a Master of Law programme at UP in 2019, he had no idea of the fact that the path to graduation success would be littered with so many trials.

“My bumpy ride began almost immediately,” Mitole says. “Within the first few months, I’d lost my laptop, which I’d recently acquired, after a bus drove over the bag containing it. The next laptop crashed. Both had contained unbacked-up class material. Then in the middle of the year, during exam time, I lost my mother to cancer. I must confess that I had contemplated dropping out.”

The following year continued to present Mitole with challenges. “When COVID-19 struck last year, the borders were closed, and doing cross-border entrepreneurship, which is what I do to finance my studies, became almost impossible,” he says. “My children’s school laid off staff and subsequently closed its doors, and a variety of circumstances forced my wife, Rachel, to resign from her job.”

Mitole found himself in a perilous financial situation. “After more than 300 applications, I was recruited for articles by a medium-sized law firm in Melrose Arch which also had an in-house law school. A candidate attorney’s position does not pay much, it does not offer the financial breakthrough one anticipates. At this point, I was in the thick of writing my thesis.” To add to his stress, his application for a permanent residence permit, which he had applied for in 2018, had not come through and is yet to come through. His wife and children received their permits three years ago.

On the morning of 26 May 2021, Mitole felt tired and weak, and decided to go to the hospital. “I went through COVID-19 screenings and paperwork until midnight,” he recalls. “It was a public hospital. My blood pressure was high. I sat on a bench in the emergency room until the following morning when I was finally seen by a doctor and given some medication. But by this time, my blood pressure was at its highest and my left limbs had become paralysed.”

Mitole had suffered a lacunar stroke. “There was a small blood clot on the right side of my brain, which had caused the brain to stop sending messages to the left-side limbs,” he explains.

After about a week in hospital, Mitole was discharged to begin rehabilitation treatment at a centre. “I woke up at 4am every day and exercised most of the day, sometimes while other patients slept,” he says. “I was on my feet walking around the hospital and using whatever gym facilities there were. There was a lot of support from family, friends and my workplace, but finishing the dissertation became a far-fetched dream.”

That was until he read a book called Everything is Possible by Jen Bricker that changed everything. “The book is about a young woman who was born without legs but had gone on to chase unimaginable dreams, including going sky-diving and deep-sea diving,” Mitole says. “She talks about finding the faith and courage to follow your dream. I had no excuse. I had to get out of rehab and finish my dissertation.”

Mitole often felt tired, had headaches and could use only one hand to type his dissertation – but he was undeterred. “Two weeks later, in early July, I was discharged from rehab,” he says. “By then, I had a submission date for my dissertation in order to graduate in September. When my supervisor recommended changes and more research, I would commence immediately, knowing my challenge had become speed and endurance. I was grateful that my brain, memory and motivation was fired up. I’d learnt how to do a lot of things with one hand: typing, cooking, bathing and dressing – to these, I needed to add speed.”

So after everything he has been through, what advice does he have for other students who may be facing adversity? “Seek professional help if necessary. While in hospital, I met with psychologists, social workers, dieticians, occupational, physio, speech and audio therapists. This is aside from meeting neurologists, cardiologists and internal medicine specialists. And ensure that you have a strong support structure surrounding you.”

- Author Mecayla Maseka

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