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Terminally-ill Cape Bretoner realizes life-long dream at private graduation ceremony in Sydney, Nova Scotia

May 7, 2004


Twenty-four-year-old Heather Marie Gillis of Sydney, Nova Scotia achieved her lifelong dream of earning a teaching degree last weekend when the president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent visited her at a Cape Breton hospital to personally award her the diploma she was to receive during a ceremony on the northern Maine campus this weekend.

In March of this year, Heather was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and has since been admitted to the palliative care unit at Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

The young woman, who is in the advanced stages of the cancer, recently completed her studies at UMFK. She had earned her teaching certificate from the Province of Nova Scotia earlier this year after successfully finishing the required teaching practicum, which she completed at two Sydney area elementary schools last fall.

"On Monday (April 26), Heather asked us if she would be able to attend the graduation ceremony in Fort Kent on May 8. We were just heartbroken to tell her she was not well enough to make the trip," said Brenda Yates, a registered nurse in the palliative care unit at the Cape Breton hospital. "It was obvious to all of us when she asked that she really wanted to attend. We knew we really didn't have much time, but we wanted to do something."

Immediately Yates, along with social worker Tom McNeil and a team of hospital volunteers, went into action to plan a graduation ceremony that Heather could take part in.

The first call made by McNeil was to the academic affairs office at the University in Fort Kent to see what arrangements could be made to get Heather's diploma forwarded to the hospital prior to the commencement.

Details of the call were immediately relayed to the President's office, where upon hearing the news, UMFK President Richard Cost made the immediate decision that he and his wife Ellen would travel to Nova Scotia to personally award Heather her hard-earned degree.

"There was no question in my mind. I knew Ellen and I needed to be there," said Cost. "We pride ourselves on providing personalized attention to our students, and attending to this student's need represented the very fabric of our campus community."

Hospital officials and Gillis family members were astonished that the University president was going to make the 1,200 mile round-trip drive to Cape Breton to attend the impromptu ceremony on a few days notice.

With the unexpected good news as additional wind in their sails, the team of hospital employees and volunteers continued to set the stage for what would be a most touching commencement for Heather Gillis.

"The days leading up to the ceremony were particularly difficult for Heather. She was not very responsive and we even considered calling the President to let him know that the ceremony might not happen," said Yates. "I'm so glad we didn't because Heather ended up having one of her best days on Sunday, the day of the ceremony."

The event, however, would not have been complete without the guest of honor's best friend Sarah MacCormack. The two childhood companions, who had attended and graduated from Riverview Rural High School and the University College of Cape Breton in Sydney together, and also both attended the University of Maine at Fort Kent at the same time, were not about to be apart on this important day.

MacCormack, who initially hoped that she and Heather would be able to attend their UMFK graduation together on May 8, decided to cancel her plans to attend the ceremony in Fort Kent and stay by the side of her best friend.

With that news, the UMFK-Cape Breton commencement quickly became a double-ceremony for the two friends, who had never experienced a graduation without the other.

Complete with balloons in green and gold (UMFK school colors), a congratulatory cake, and refreshments, hospital volunteers prepared for their own version of a UMFK graduation in the "An Calla" (Gaelic word meaning harbor) room of the hospital.

Heather's parents, Angus and Velma Gillis, along with Sarah MacCormack helped their daughter and friend put on the cap and gown.

Proudly wearing the academic regalia, Heather was brought into the room where more than 30 family members and close friends gathered for the celebration, to witness Cost presenting her and Sarah MacCormack with their bachelor of university studies degrees with a concentration in elementary education.

"We were shocked and touched that President Cost would come here and present Heather with her degree. Everything went so smoothly and it meant so much to us. We will always remember what the University of Maine at Fort Kent did for our daughter," said Velma Gillis.

"I don't think there was a dry eye in the room," said Yates. "Sunday was something that you dream of happening. When you are able to grant someone a wish that means so much to them it is well-worth any and all effort put in. If it hadn't been for President Cost, it wouldn't have been nearly as special."

The names of Heather Gillis and Sarah MacCormack, along with 211 other members of the University of Maine at Fort Kent class of 2004 are printed in the program that will be given to individuals attending the commencement ceremony at UMFK this weekend.

"Ellen and I were so pleased to personally congratulate Heather and Sarah on their achievements," said Cost. "It was a very emotional experience, but a very inspiring one. Heather's grace and concern for others in the face of a tragic situation are incredible. She is amazing! And Sarah's devotion to her friend is equally heartwarming," said Cost.

"We always learn from our students," added Cost. "But, the lessons from these two young ladies reach right down to the core of our humanity. We were blessed to be part of this experience."

The University of Maine at Fort Kent is situated at the center of Acadian history and culture in rural Northern Maine. The campus serves 850 students, mostly from Maine but with a considerable number of international students.

Fort Kent has a population of 4,500 and is situated in the St. John River Valley across the border from Clair, New Brunswick, Canada.