On the morning of April 24, 2011, Jim Hoppe, the Dean of Students, was frantically making phone calls to Japan. Hoppe had received a call at 9 a.m. from St. Paul’s Regions Hospital that a student, Hiroki Kikuchi ’15, was admitted to the hospital in a coma.
Five hours earlier, while many Mac students were celebrating Springfest in one way or another, Kikuchi, a freshman at the time, lay motionless in the 3rd floor hallway of Dupre. Two days before, he had experienced severe headaches which were early symptoms of his serious health problem.
Sandhya Rajkumar ’14 and Domokos Lauko ’14 were some of the first ones on the scene. They notified RA Tess Carley who called emergency services. Ten minutes later, an ambulance arrived to take Kikuchi to Regions Hospital for immediate surgery.
Kikuchi did not wake up from the coma until May 2. By then, a third of his skull was replaced with titanium. He could not read, write, or talk. He had lost almost all of his memory.
After five months of rigorous therapy, Kikuchi was still not his former self. He returned to Macalester in spring 2012 with a nonfunctional left frontal lobe, causing him epilepsy, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and general lack of long-term memory. He was diagnosed with brain abscess, an infection that causes swelling in the brain.
“[Student Services] told me, ‘If you don’t feel comfortable, you might want to move to another school,’” said Kikuchi. “I chose to come back to [Macalester] because I didn’t want to move to another school … I think this is the place for me.”
Kikuchi’s professors have granted him additional accommodations. “I said he could have unlimited time, he could use a computer with no internet, [and] have open book and open notes,” said Professor Lesley Lavery. “I cared more about his success than following the letter of the law.”
The administrative response to Kikuchi’s ordeal has been a rigid adherence to Macalester’s policies. In spring 2011, Kikuchi’s traumatic incident occurred late in the semester, so he received neither academic credit nor financial refund.
“I really don’t think it was fair for him,” said Kikuchi’s friend Johnny Paige ’14. “He had to withdraw from all his classes. It is not fair to not give him the tuition back. I know it is a part of the school policies and rules, but he couldn’t see this coming.”
Vice President for Administration and Finance David Wheaton said the tuition refund deadline is enforced so withdrawing students don’t take advantage of the costly resources the college provides. He said he had “absolutely no knowledge of [Kikuchi’s] circumstance.”
Kikuchi later withdrew from the fall 2011 semester, since he was not able to complete it. This time he withdrew before the Nov. 9 deadline, so he received 25 percent of his tuition back.
“We try to deal with every case as humanely as we can,” President Brian Rosenberg said. “There are admittedly some times where the rules lead us in one direction and humane treatment leads us in another.”
Kikuchi said he is not currently on financial aid, but his medical expenses have made finances an issue. He said that he wished the Dean of Students Office would help him. “[Macalester] could spend less in something they don’t need, like building some new buildings,” said Kikuchi. “It’s more attractive to students in general … to support students with financial difficulties like me.”
Mac students with disabilities on the rise
During the 2011-2012 school year, 163 Mac students received support from disabilities services, more than double the total from three years ago. Associate Dean of Students Lisa Landreman said student disabilities include depression, ADHD, and Aspergers, and are handled on a case-by-case basis. She said these statistics neglect students who do not notify the administration of their disabilities.
“Accommodations can’t make stuff go away,” said Hoppe. “It’s about adjusting the playing field, so to speak, so [students] have the opportunity to finish.”
Alex Lemon reflects on 1990s Mac experience with a brain condition
Fifteen years before Hiroki Kikuchi dealt with a severe brain injury at Macalester, Alex Lemon ’00 was dealing with his own brain condition. It was the spring of his freshman year and Lemon was a catcher on the baseball team.
Then he suffered his first stroke.
“I ended up taking incompletes,” he said. “For the next two years, I was thinking about it a lot. I didn’t tell my friends and I didn’t talk about how sad I was.”
At the end of his junior year, Lemon had two more strokes.
After consulting with doctors, he decided to withdraw from his senior year at Macalester to have brain surgery in Miami.
Following a successful surgery, Lemon returned to the Twin Cities to begin extensive rehabilitation, learning to walk and talk again, just like Kikuchi had to do recently.
He returned the following fall for another attempt at his senior year. Lemon used a cane and wore an eyepatch. He remembers his professor Ping Wang asking him what happened.
“She treated me like I was normal,” Lemon said.
The following spring, Lemon graduated with a degree in Political Science. He praised Vice President of Student Affairs Laurie Hamre for helping him graduate.
“Across the board, the administration was really great,” Lemon said.
Four years after graduating, Lemon returned to Macalester as an English professor. His condition had gotten worse as he started to lose vision. Lemon said his department chair, Stephen Burt, helped support him through his struggles.
“Not only as a student did I have great support from the administration and its faculty, but again when I needed help as a faculty member at Mac,” Lemon said. “They came through again which I thought was pretty amazing.”
Lemon said that he deals with lifelong disabilities including double vision and occasional numbness in his face. He said that Macalester helped him get through these health problems as a student. He also praised Texas Christian University, where he currently teaches, which has helped him as a professor in dealing with the outcomes of his health problems.
Lemon said one of the most challenging realities he must face today is that he will never be able to return to his Macalester baseball career. “I played sports, I was active, and I think I’ll always being dealing with some depression or some mental illness because of everything that’s happened,” he said.
Lemon said it was not until later that he appreciated the support he received from the Macalester administration. Looking back, he said he wished he would have been willing to ask for help sooner.
“Talking to people was one of the most helpful things that happened to me,” he said. “I don’t think I could have finished without people around me like that.”
Lemon offered his encouragement to current students dealing with health problems.
“My heart goes out to them,” he said. “It’s really hard and incredibly difficult being a young person going through a life-altering hardship. You feel really alone.”
Macalester administration focuses efforts on improving student health services
While not many Macalester students will have to deal with health conditions of the same magnitude as Kikuchi’s and Lemon’s, the majority of students will have to deal with less severe conditions like the common cold or flu at least once during their time here.
Greer Silverman ’16 fell ill the night before a psychology exam. Although she was not sure how her final grade would be affected by her absence, she appreciated the cooperation of her professors.
“There was nothing I could do but email [my psychology] professor and hope he’d understand, and luckily, he was really considerate about the whole thing,” she said.
“The professors here at Macalester tend to be, as a rule, really accommodating and really interested in what’s in the best interest of the student,” said Hoppe.
In mid-October, Risa Luther ’16 came down with both the flu and laryngitis, preventing her from attending nine days of classes. “My professors were all very generous with it,” said Luther. “I got a lot of extensions. At first it was all kind of overwhelming, but then it wasn’t too bad because of my professor’s support.”
When Luther went to the Health and Wellness Center, however, she was referred to an off-campus doctor under the false impression that Macalester did not have a doctor. They told Luther that it would be two weeks until she could get help at Macalester. Luther described the experience as “ridiculous” and “annoying.”
Health and Wellness Center Medical Director Dr. Stephanie Walters said that it is rare for a college campus health services to meet the needs of all students.
“Many colleges of our size don’t have any full-time doctors,” she said. “I am very fortunate to work at a small college [that] has prioritized a physician and a health clinic for its students.”
Dr. Stephanie Walters, the center’s lone physician, said that she thought expanding the health center’s services would not be an “appropriate use of Macalester’s resources as we are so close to a variety of health care providers.”
“Probably one of the greatest challenges that we face as a campus is being able to provide the necessary level of service for students who need a whole range of health services, physical and mental,” President Rosenberg said. “There’s probably more demand for those services than five or 10 years ago.”