Sitting in her doctor's office in December 2018, Mika Ayers felt her world explode. Her back pain and fatigue were not signs of stress. Her cancer had returned — and advanced to Stage 4.
Ayers had just faced a life crossroads, becoming a single mom and enrolling in the San Jacinto College Health Information Management Program to launch her career. But the doctor's news shook her.
"I considered not going back to San Jac," she said. "Do I continue on, or do I just spend time with my family?"
Although addicted to TV shows like "The Operation" and medical documentaries as early as middle school, Ayers still hadn't settled on a career after high school. She took several college classes, but school eventually took a backseat to life.
Fast forward almost 20 years. Ayers had overcome Stage 3 breast cancer and was caring for her four kids even as her marriage and stay-at-home mom life dissolved. Now was the time to choose a career.
After chatting with a medical coding friend and researching, she landed on San Jacinto College's health information management program webpage. Ayers then talked with program director Carla Ruffins. That conversation solidified her choice.
Although squeamish about hands-on medical care, Ayers could still help patients by organizing, coding, and evaluating health information to ensure accurate records. She would also have work-from-home options.
"Although it was a scary step after a 20-year break, I felt excited after talking to faculty . . . scared and excited to start," she said.
When Ayers started classes in summer 2018, opportunities began rolling her way. She joined the Student Association of Health Information Management. Her grasp of medical terminology landed her first place in a San Jac SkillsUSA competition, then second place at state.
"Once I started taking classes, I knew I had found the right field for me," she said.
But then came the scary words: Stage 4. What now? Having undergone treatment before, Ayers knew the challenges ahead, but she also knew her kids were watching. What would they think if she quit now?
In spring 2019, she dropped to one online class and started IV chemotherapy. That summer she picked up a full-time schedule again.
"I decided to keep making goals and pursuing them," she said. "Otherwise, I could lay in bed and cry, and what is that going to do?"
Rebecca McDonald, Ayers' first health information management instructor at San Jac, remembers this self-described "serious student" asking what she needed to do to succeed. Ayers wasn't looking for shortcuts.
McDonald encouraged her to participate in the Houston Area Health Information Management Association and Texas Health Information Management Association. She also urged her to run for the student club president.
"Mika was nervous about speaking in front of people, so I told her to just look at me until she felt comfortable," McDonald said. She still laughs: "The meeting began, and it took about two minutes for her to become a confident leader."
Ruffins echoes Ayers' leadership qualities.
"Mika may be my student, but I have learned so much from her — how to be courageous, optimistic, and steadfast when life throws you a curveball," she said.
Crunch time and COVID
Despite ongoing chemo, Ayers volunteered at the 2019 Texas Health Information Management Association Annual Convention and attended the Houston association meetings.
This spring she won the 2020 Texas Health Information Management Association Volunteer Award and a $500 Houston-area scholarship. Through networking, she also earned a seat as student liaison for the Houston Area Health Information Management Association Board of Directors.
"Having goals — something to pursue — has kept me going," she said.
Since her San Jac classes were mostly online, COVID-19 didn't change her coursework much. But it affected her in two other ways: She had concerns being immunocompromised, and her daughter and three sons — ranging from ages 7 to 15 — suddenly joined her at home for school. Five people were doing online classes under one roof.
"I had to make a schedule and set aside time to work on my assignments at night when everyone was asleep," Ayers said.
When her in-person clinical experience got canceled, she joined San Jac classmates in the Texas-Wide Intercollegiate Collaborative Virtual Practicum. Their project focused on how COVID-19 impacted telehealth and HIPAA regulations.
Through virtual coding roundtables and grand round meetings with other colleges and universities, Ayers got experience in coding and earned her required clinical hours.
"It's been great having that option," she said. "I don't have to take a risk being around a large group of people."
One step at a time
On Aug. 7, Ayers watched via laptop as a slide with her name, photo, and associate degree appeared in the College's virtual commencement ceremony. Her phone buzzed with congratulations texts from family and friends.
"You have that anticipation where you know your name is coming, and then you hear it," she said. "Now I have my degree."
Meanwhile, she celebrates another victory. Although she will always be on cancer treatment, she is stable, with no progression.
Her next step: After sitting for the registered health information technician certification exam, she will pursue an online health information management bachelor's degree program. Then she wants to support others fighting illnesses.
"As someone who has a chronic illness that requires constant medical care, I know the importance of those who work behind the scenes," she said. "Going through a medical situation can be scary and overwhelming."
Showing her kids it's never too late to return to school or achieve dreams has kept her fighting her diagnosis and pushing through obstacles. Although proud of her accomplishments, Ayers hesitates to call herself a supermom.
"I think all of us have our own challenges and struggles," she said. "I appreciate that people look at my own story and are impressed. Life is tough, but I've taken a bad situation and found something good out of it — the change I needed."
Author's Note: Mika Ayers passed away in September 2022 after her eight-year battle with cancer. Shortly before her death, she finished her longtime goal, earning her bachelor’s degree in medical information management. She was brave, positive, and strong throughout this difficult journey.