First-Gen Single Mom Overcame Cancer, Amputation to Fulfill Nursing Dream

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Harris College graduating senior Annette Rios

 

Horned Frog Annette Rios believes there is no mountain too high to climb.

Rios started TCU as a single mom and first-generation college student, battled cancer and then fought back from a below-the-knee leg amputation on her journey to a BS in nursing. She graduates this month. On time.

Determined scholar

Drawn to nursing from an early age, Rios went to technical school after high school and worked in family practice for a few years, but she wanted to be more hands on with patients. A divorced single mom, she worked full time while taking nursing prerequisites at Tarrant County College. She was making good grades, so her counselor suggested she apply to TCU. Rios was accepted and offered a Faculty Scholarship.

“That opened the doors for me to go TCU,” she says. That wasn’t the only happy news: About the same time, Rios also found out she was expecting her second child.

Beginning her TCU studies in January 2018, Rios applied to the nursing program in March and was soon accepted. It was in the nursing program that she found her people.

“Once I got into the nursing program, I really felt like I belonged. The faculty and staff know your name and your story, and that was something that made me feel a part of the bigger picture, part of the family. They made me feel like more than a student.”

Her daughter was born in early August, and Rios started her first semester in TCU’s nursing program a couple of weeks later.

“I was breastfeeding, going to school for the nursing program, carrying around my pump and all that good stuff. I finished the semester with no problems.”

Shocking diagnosis

During the spring semester, Rios started having a lot of pain in her foot, which she shrugged off to the thousands of steps required of a nursing student. She finished strong and was looking forward to her summer beach wedding in Turks and Caicos. Trying to lose a little weight before the big day, she started running and her foot swelled up. “That’s when I knew something was not right.”

After an X-ray, a podiatrist said she had a small tumor at the bottom of her foot. “He said it was no big deal — 99% of the time it’s not cancer.”

Rios decided to postpone surgery until after the wedding. Touching back down in DFW on a Friday, she had surgery on Monday.

“My surgery went OK,” she recalls. “But when I went back for the two-week follow-up, they told me I had cancer.”

She saw an oncologist, who recommended a below-the-knee leg amputation. “I could not fathom that that was the only option I had,” she says. So she got a second opinion from a doctor with a reputation for success in treating cancer with intensity-modulated radiation therapy. He also suggested amputation.

Already a little over a month into her fall clinicals, Rios decided to see one more doctor — this time at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“I told him my story. He gave me a lot of different options, but once again suggested the below-the-knee amputation. The way he explained amputation helped me understand that it was my best chance for survival. At that point, my daughter had just turned 10 months old. I wanted to make sure I have a long time to live.”

Still hesitant to make the call, Rios finished out another week of clinicals before making a decision. Now three months post-diagnosis, she had another PET scan: The cancer had spread to her toe and ankle. “At that point, I realized I didn’t have choice.”

Road to recovery

Rios had surgery Oct. 22, 2019, at MD Anderson. At her four-week checkup, everything was healing so well that she was given the go-ahead to get a prosthetic — weeks ahead of schedule. She got fitted for her first prosthetic on Dec. 4 and spent the rest of the month in physical therapy. In January 2020, she returned to campus to repeat her disrupted semester.

“I came back without a cane or crutches. I came back with just my prosthetic and went to clinicals and nobody knew. The people at school who did know were very supportive.”

In March, Rios spent spring break in Houston for fresh scans and to get fitted for a new prosthetic.

“I got a new prosthetic that fits me better and I’m excited to come back because I’m walking great — I don’t even have a limp and nobody can tell — and then COVID hit,” she says. “Apparently it took a mass pandemic for me to tell my body to slow down — that’s my joke about that.”

Rios finished the semester out. “But I wasn’t happy. I wanted to graduate with the people I was supposed to graduate with.”

She asked and was granted permission to be added to the accelerated nursing program for the summer. She caught up with her original nursing program class — even earning all As — and, after a one-week break, began her final semester in August. She graduates this month.

“Regardless of everything that I’ve gone through, I’ve done it,” she says. “I’m very proud of myself and I’m honored people recognize my perseverance.”

When asked from where she draws her strength, Rios gives the question some thought. Her family and friends are extremely supportive and her kids inspire her — but they are not really the source of her strength, she says. “It was just in me. I didn’t want people to ever think there’s something that I can’t do. I just wanted to be regarded as a normal person despite the number of adversities I had to overcome.”

Eager to give back

Rios recently accepted an offer to join the ICU team at Medical City. Her residency program starts in February.

Originally she wanted to go into behavioral health. “The mental part of the body is overlooked, and it’s really fascinating,” she says. “With the situation with my leg, I got a little standoffish. What if someone pushes me? I can do a lot of things, but I can’t hold my balance as well as I could before.”

She also considered orthopedics and oncology. “But I realized that was still a little too traumatic for me. I wasn’t sure I would be a good fit for my patients.”

Ultimately, she knew ICU — where she spent two days as a patient following her surgery — was where she could make the biggest impact.

“I felt like that was the place I could give back to the most. I have an insider point of view, so I can have a more sympathetic view of my patients’ cases and what they’re going through.”

Rios is also looking for ways she can give back as an alumna.

“I really want to be involved and be able to talk to other students who come along who may have different adversities and think that they can’t make it,” she says. “No matter the size of the mountain, you can climb it — just push yourself.”