Occupational therapy student’s family overcomes tremendous obstacles to reach their American dream
May 11, 2018
By Greg Peters
Shannon Pettersson made a promise to her children that once she earned her master's degree in occupational therapy and landed a job they would get a house and a dog. It's a promise 8-year-old Danny and 7-year-old Kylee have held out in front of their mother like a carrot hanging on a string from a stick as a way to coax her along during the arduous days of graduate school these last three years at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
This family's American dream of a house and a puppy, which once seemed like it was stuck on permanent hold, will take a giant step forward May 13 when Pettersson walks down Campanile Hill in Lawrence to collect her degree. The family's next stop: Houston, Texas, where Pettersson has a job as an occupational therapist.
"We hope to get a house with a yard where our kids and puppies can play, within a year of graduation," said Pettersson, who will be the first woman on either side of her family to earn a master's degree. "Both children have been saving every penny they earn to go toward our future, furry friends."
But just getting to graduation day has been a long and challenging journey that has taken every ounce of stick-to-itiveness the family could muster. They have endured more than their fair share of illnesses, financial misfortune and just plain bad luck. But through difficulty has come strength. They bonded over the challenges and survived the adventure together, building memories they will cherish forever.
Pettersson was the second oldest of six children growing up in Utah. By the time she was a teenager, she was helping to raise her younger siblings and two boxer puppies. She loved reading and art, both of which she eventually had to give up due to headaches from an undiagnosed visual impairment.
"As I grew up, I naturally found ways to compensate for not being able to see as well and assumed this was how everyone else saw the world," she said. "Despite my challenges, from a young age I saw education as a way out and a path to a better life."
So Pettersson dedicated herself to her studies and finished high school with a 4.0 grade point average. It wasn't until she had earned her bachelor's degree that she realized how bad her vision had become and finally was fitted for glasses.
She and her husband, Jeremy, met during those undergraduate years; got married; and started having children. After graduation, it took Jeremy nearly nine months to land a job. While at home, Shannon was juggling schoolwork along with taking care of newborn Kylee and 2-year-old Danny. While her son was exceptionally bright, basic daily activities such as dressing and eating led to major meltdowns.
Realizing they needed additional support, the Petterssons reached out for help and Danny was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. An occupational therapist began coming to their house to work with Danny, and Shannon found herself becoming more and more fascinated with the therapist's work. She began asking questions and quickly understood the best ways to meet her son's needs.
"I got to know and connect with who he really was for the first time," she said. "He was happier. We were happier. And I felt successful as a parent for the first time. That's when I decided that I needed to be an occupational therapist and help others on the same journey."
But the path ahead didn't get any easier. During a routine doctor's appointment, the family's pediatrician noticed Danny had high blood pressure and referred him to a cardiologist. That doctor found that he had a significant congenital heart condition known as coarctation or narrowing of the aorta.
"We were told he was lucky to have lived to age 2," Pettersson said. "He had surgery a week later and recovered quickly."
But that wasn't the end of the family's tale of woe. The company Jeremy was working for laid him off after only three months. "That moment was truly rock bottom for us. We had exhausted all our options in our home state."
Kansas City here we come
So Shannon picked up the pace on her search for an OT school, and KU came up at the top of her list. They were looking for a good school with prerequisites similar to what Shannon had started. They also wanted a family friendly area and hopefully a stronger job market for Jeremy. Coincidentally, their apartment lease was about to expire, so leaving would not be a problem.
"So we sold or got rid of most of our belongings; put what we could into storage; and loaded our two babies and a few essentials into our little, silver Chevy," Pettersson said. "We headed toward Kansas with nothing but hope, a credit card and enough cash for one month's rent."
After arriving in Kansas City, Jeremy landed a job within three days and also found an apartment in Overland Park where they lived without furniture for six weeks until family members arrived with their belongings.
Things didn't get any easier. Jeremy got laid off again but quickly found another job. Shannon, meanwhile, took care of the kids and completed her OT prerequisites. Eventually, Shannon got a part-time job, the family sold whatever was left of value, and they all lived off of two meals a day for eight months.
Two years after moving to Kansas, Shannon applied to the KU OT program. "We literally cried when we got the acceptance letter because it was our only shot," she said. "We didn't have the luxury of a Plan B."
Perhaps the oddest twist in the family's journey came during Shannon's first semester in the OT program when the family started having mysterious physical symptoms, sometimes so bad that keeping up with graduate school became difficult. Ultimately, they learned that there was mold growing in the apartment's ventilation system, so they quickly moved to better accommodations.
'We made it!'
Today, Danny and Kylee are like most kids. They love Legos and Minecraft, cartoons and reading graphic novels. And they like playing outside, especially when puppies are involved.
Getting Shannon through graduate school has taken effort from the entire family. There were times, especially during her field work at Operation Breakthrough, that sleepy children were bundled into the car by 6:30 a.m. so mom could be dropped off to start her work day at 7.
"Our family theme for that year was 'we can do hard things,'" Pettersson said. "Sometimes, when they were struggling with the routine, I would practice a little reverse psychology. I would stay in the car for a minute and say 'I'm not going to work today. I want to go home right now. This is too hard.'
Remembering her promise, the kids would then chime in with an emotional speech to get mom moving. "Mom, do you want a house with a yard? Do you want a puppy? Mom, if you want those things, you have to go in!"
The dream of a house with a yard and a puppy won't be on hold much longer. Pettersson's job in the Houston area will be treating children in both in-home and clinical settings, and her own children have begun putting in bids for the kind of dog they want - Kylee wants a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel and Danny a Miniature Schnauzer. .
With the degree and now a job, in many ways, Pettersson's journey has come full circle. She started down the path to becoming an occupational therapist when an OT came to her home years ago to help her son, and now she is able to return the support to others.
"For my little family, this is a time of great celebration," said Pettersson, whose husband is currently working on his master's degree and hopes to teach middle school social studies. "Not only am I graduating with a job in hand, but my husband and I are celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. As we often say in our family, 'all's well that ends well.' And we really mean it."
"Finally," she added, "we are planning a trip to Disney World after both my husband and I have master's degrees. That will be the ultimate 'we made it!' celebration."