Wislande Guillaume tried to brush off the throbbing pain that suddenly struck her head as she sat in class just five weeks into her first semester at Rutgers.
“I hadn’t eaten breakfast, so I thought that was why I had the headache,’’ Guillaume said.
But a few minutes after that class in October 2008, she collapsed in the hallway of Hickman Hall.
Her memory of that day is sparse. She fainted and woke up at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital as doctors drained excess blood from her brain. She was told she had suffered an aneurysm and that she would have to undergo an eight hour surgery.
Little did she know that months after the life-threatening hemorrhage, she would conduct research in Haiti, become a peer counselor and a Leadership Scholar with the Institute for Women’s Leadership, and be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.
All the more remarkable, because a neurosurgeon had to remove a section of her skull to locate the bulging artery and place a tiny metal clip on the neck of the aneurysm to stop the blood flow.
While aneurysms can lead to death or disability, Guillaume recovered with few noticeable symptoms and returned to Rutgers in January 2009, less than three months after her collapse. Her first intensive, in-class writing assignment, however, was an unexpected challenge.
“My mind was going faster than I could write and I became flustered,” she recalled. “It was really hard not to perform at the level I was used to in class. I was kind of freaked out.”
But Guillaume's confidence increased as the semester progressed.
A year after she returned to class, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, her parents’ native country. Though she grew up speaking Haitian Creole at home and attends a Haitian Pentecostal church, she says she was literally moved by the earthquake to establish a deeper connection with her roots.
Guillaume designed a social action project that would explore gender dimensions of the country’s reconstruction efforts. She received a School of Arts and Sciences Academic Excellence Award to help cover her August 2011 trip to Port-au-Prince, the capital of the Caribbean nation.
Traveling on a shoestring budget, she spent a week interviewing Haitian women about their lives before and after the earthquake and their visions for the country moving forward.
She developed the interviews into her thesis, Personal Narratives of Structural Violence: Haitian Women Pre- and Post-Earthquake, and "My Heart Aches," her first documentary film.
Guillaume’s adviser Carlos Decena, an associate professor in Rutgers’ Department of Women and Gender Studies, says her work exceeded even his expectations.
“That film is where her genius lays – such beautiful bursts of analysis and brilliance,’’ Decena said. “I get goose bumps thinking about it.”
Decena did not know Guillaume had recovered from an aneurysm until her thesis and film were complete.
“That makes her journey even more incredible,” Decena said.
He applauds Guillaume’s professionalism – her capacity to listen, understand layers of complexity, think for herself and discover her own voice.
“Wislande has such healthy boundaries; it’s always about the work. She’s pretty spectacular.”
Guillaume’s doctors cannot tell her what caused the aneurysm, although she is in a higher risk group as both a woman and an African American. She has yearly exams and remains healthy.
She will complete her undergraduate degree this year and plans to pursue graduate study in poverty and development issues. She believes her faith kept her grounded through both her medical ordeal and her return to college.
“Somewhere deep in my subconscious I knew that, eventually, I would get back to normal,” she said. “I had full assurance in God's ability to completely heal me.”