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Omaha Magazine

Gratitude and a Growth Mindset

Apr 05, 2021 04:51PM ● By Linda Persigehl

Madelene McCracken's long-time passion has been working with kids, especially teens.

“For over 20 years, I have wanted to be a high school counselor,” she said. “I love…high school students.”

When a health crisis threatened to derail her plan to follow that passion, McCracken refused to let that happen.

The Lincoln native earned a postbaccalaureate degree in elementary education at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and worked as a Student Involvement Technician and Family Facilitator in Lincoln and Millard public schools, respectively, and at College of St. Mary, before going back to school in 2019 to pursue a master’s in school counseling at University of Nebraska at Omaha. Then, in May 2020, McCracken accepted a high school counselor position at Burke High School and began working in mid-August.

A few days into her “dream job,” she had a medical episode that disrupted her life dramatically. “I was at work in my office typing an email and looking at the screen, and all of the sudden it was just gibberish,” McCracken said. She said her right hand was obviously not working correctly, she panicked for a moment, then sought the help of her colleagues. “I thought, ‘something is wrong. I’m having a stroke or having a seizure.’” Her partner was called and the counselor was rushed to the emergency room.

McCracken’s devastating diagnosis came the same day via a video consult with a neurologist: an MRI revealed she had a brain tumor, and the mass was pressing on the motor skills portion of her brain, causing a seizure.

Treatment began with surgery on Sept. 1. Dr. Jordan P. Lacy, a neurosurgeon with MD West ONE, removed the tumor, later determined to be a grade 2 atypical meningioma. While her meningioma appeared benign, her doctors recommended McCracken proceed with radiation treatment to ensure the full tumor was eradicated.

Five weeks after a successful surgery, McCracken went back to her counseling position at Burke, anxious and excited to see her students again.

“I returned Oct. 5…came back full time. I did feel like I’d missed out. I was new, too, and thought, ‘now I’m even more behind,’” she said. “That time [of recovery] took away from building relationships with my students.”

Three days later, she began daily radiation treatments, usually scheduling them late afternoon to reduce missed work time. She suffered fatigue and some hair loss, but McCracken said she had minimal side effects and felt fairly good throughout the seven-week course. Then, a bout with COVID-19 hit, and severe flu-like symptoms required her to take a break from work and radiation. The setback was temporary, however, and she returned to her students in quick order. In fact, few of the kids were even aware of her health trials, due to her regular schedule and relatively unaffected appearance.

“There was really just one student who wanted to know about my scar, and she’s interested in neurosurgery, so I had a conversation with her,” McCracken said. “A few more students commented on my haircut [referencing to her head’s shorn sides]. They like it!” she laughed.

Throughout it all, McCracken said she never doubted she’d get through the health scare and kept an upbeat attitude. 

“It would have been very easy to focus on fear and loss…but I had to change the way I think, take on a growth mindset,” she said. The experience also forced her to slow down and let go of things she couldn’t control, she said, which has served her well.

While students were a bit in the dark about her health scare, McCracken’s coworkers were not. And many were inspired by how she took it all in stride.

“Madelene epitomizes the meaning of bravery and resiliency,” said Don Ferree, a fellow Burke High counselor. “While receiving some of the worst news a person could ever hear, she approached it with optimism and selflessness. Her focus was never on herself but on making sure our team was supported and her students’ needs were being met during her absence.”

While the trials of the past year have been difficult, McCracken said she’s extremely thankful for the support she’s received from OPS and Burke’s counseling staff. She’s also more dedicated than ever to helping her students. “I’m not going to let anything get in the way of supporting students and helping them become the best version of themselves.” 

This article originally appeared in the 2021 edition of Family Guide.