“Hold on to your dreams”

“I have always been one of those students who do everything pretty quickly. I was not driven by ambition, but rather by enthusiasm and a thirst for knowledge. I was always convinced that I had chosen the right degree programme. Student life was tons of fun and I really enjoyed it. It all changed when, out of the blue, I contracted an extremely rare disease a few semesters before graduating. My original plan of becoming a teacher for French and Psychology/Philosophy was threatening to go up in smoke because I suffered from chronic pain in my throat and was no longer able to speak. It took almost two semesters until the doctors found the cause of my rare disease (0.16 % of the population are affected). During this period of devastating uncertainty, I found out how difficult it was to manage student life nonverbally. I was glad to have great friends who handled the most important conversations for me.

Surgeries as well as hospital and therapy stays were inevitable, so I had to suspend my studies, which was hard for me to accept. My disease turned out to be so persistent that even after all the surgical procedures I was no longer able to nod, swallow, eat, smile or talk without feeling pain. More than 40 doctors had already been involved in my case, but nobody was able to help me. So I found myself in bed, googling treatment methods, while my colleagues were already celebrating their graduation. What was the use of all the French words that I had studied, if I might never be able to utter them again?

After a long time of searching and many setbacks I finally found a specialist in the Netherlands who was willing to take on my complex case. Since then, I have flown around the globe 45 times to undergo treatment between his lectures. In the process, I have seen so many educational institutions – and all I wanted was to go back to the University of Vienna. So I came back. After a year of interruption, I resumed my studies and completed my degree programme. Pain, infections and medical treatments four times a week slowed me down but they did not prevent me from striving for my goal. My family and the Accessible Studying Team took my fears and my professors were supportive by allowing me to compensate for my absence in the form of additional written assignments. This way, I was able to continue travelling to my therapy sessions at longer intervals during the last semesters. Finally, I even managed to write my diploma thesis in Psychology on the social consequences of this rare disease. It is the first study on this topic and was carried out worldwide with patients from five different continents participating.

Today I still need expensive therapies and am again looking for effective treatment options because it is still uncertain whether I will be able to stand in front of a class anytime soon. But at least I have my degree – and that makes me very happy. My diploma thesis supervisor and I also considered a doctoral programme for me, as there is still a lot to research in this niche subject area. Even if I am not always able to use my voice, I have one thing that I want to tell other students: Sometimes, life takes you somewhere completely different than planned but the most important thing is to hold on to your dreams and to never lose courage. This is when closed doors open and miracles happen.” – Nora Aigner

Nora has studied teacher education at the University of Vienna.

PS: Follow Nora at @nora.punzel on Instagram or Facebook (@nora.punzel.voice) to find out more about her story. She started a campaign on Instagram in addition to her studies to raise awareness of her disease and to look for new medical therapies for herself and for others. For the occasion of the interntaional Rare Disease Day (29 February) she will release a very special video.


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