Camille Atkins was working diligently in her community college science class when her teacher threatened to cut all her lab grades by 50 percent.
Atkins has cerebral palsy and limited use of her limbs. She’d been doing the lab work by giving an assistant step-by-step instructions.
“You’re not going anywhere,” the teacher told Atkins, who uses a battery-powered wheelchair. “You don’t stand a chance in these physically challenging sciences.”
Atkins, now 26, makes a point of remembering that incident and other cruel and foolish things people have said to her over the years.
“My arms and legs don’t work like everybody else’s, but I have my mind,” Atkins says. “And my voice.”
She uses both to best advantage while working toward a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Care Disparities, Diversity and Advocacy. Located in MD Anderson’s School of Health Professions, the program provides students with the knowledge and skills needed to advocate for patients from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
Program director Shaun Caldwell describes Atkins as a star.
“Camille understands not only the importance of advocating for her own health, but how to also help others. She’s a fighter; she will fight for her patients. And she has such an empathetic heart.”
Atkins was born 26 years ago on the outskirts of Houston. She was a beautiful baby, blonde with blue eyes, and an early talker, her mother, Julie Atkins, remembers.
“But she couldn’t meet physical goals and milestones. She couldn’t crawl or sit up on her own.”
The little girl attended public school, made friends easily and earned top grades. But there were more than a few frustrations. Occasionally, teachers told her to try harder to walk, not realizing she’d done her best and was exhausted. There were the occasional aides who failed to take her to the restroom on time. One year the school staff suggested she stay home the last week of school — the week with all the parties — because they didn’t think they had time for her. When Atkins was in sixth grade and old enough to vent, her principal told her she was a “disappointment.”
Those types of challenges continue today. Atkins tries to deal with each crisis as it comes and move on. She knows that each lesson learned will be helpful when she graduates and starts working as a patient advocate.
“When life throws you a wheelchair, make lemonade,” Atkins says. “I do get angry when someone discriminates against me, but at the end of the day, it makes me a better professional. My goal is to promote equality and justice for all.”
Atkins, a part-time student, hopes to graduate and find a job in two years. Also, she’s planning a wedding — she and Daniel Maya, who also has cerebral palsy — are getting married next June. They’re looking forward to a church ceremony, a big party, and eventually, children.
“I’ve had people tell me we’re crazy,” Atkins says. “But hey, life is challenging. I say, bring it.”