UMSL Optometry’s students are some of the most interesting students, and each and every one of them has a story—a journey and perhaps something that we did not know before their story was told. This is the first of many “Everyone Has a Story” pieces, and in future editions of the EyeWire, I will introduce you to someone in the college and their story. It is when we stop and listen that we learn beyond what we think we know. This first story is a unique journey to follow a dream, as well as a lesson: no matter what life throws at us, we are all able to overcome when we have the confidence and courage needed to do so.
Adam Wira’s (’19) story is interesting. It follows a more non-traditional track for an optometry student, and one that even with several roadblocks, hurdles, and good and bad events—continues to push forward.
Growing up, Adam was the first-born American citizen in his family. He and his sister (who had moved out long before he could remember) were the children of two Polish immigrants. Since his sister was already out of the house, he was raised as an only child. Living in a bad neighborhood in Chicago, challenges were abundant, from crime, fear, gangs, and trouble, though he was often sheltered from what happened right outside his family’s door.
In 1995, Adam’s paternal grandma passed away in Poland. While his dad traveled to Poland for the funeral, Adam and his mom stayed behind in Chicago. With the passing of his grandma, his dad, Zdzislaw, inherited a house. This led to taking his first trip to see his parents’ homeland. In the spring of 1997, his dad decided that the family was moving back to Poland. His mother was not happy about this move. His sister remained in Chicago with her family.
Tragedy struck on October 20, 1997, when his mother, Elizabeth, passed away from a heart attack the day after her birthday. She was 46. Adam was 11. Growing up without a mom is difficult, and Adam wasn’t exempt from the sadness of only having his dad as the sole provider.
Adam pushed on.
While continuing to live in Poland, he graduated from high school in 2005. He had two options: join the Polish army or continue his education. He chose option three. He packed his belongings, told his dad goodbye, and boarded a plane back to the United States.
He had no plan in place; he moved in with his sister in Chicago and began to think about what his next move would be in his life. Newly graduated from high school, he, like many, thought about pursing higher education, but eventually decided to forego the college path at least for the time being. Soon after coming back to Chicago, he began working at Costco. A year later, he decided to enroll in a few courses at the community college. With no idea of what he wanted to do with his life, he decided to pick and choose random courses and in turn devote little to no time for studying.
The result was not good—he either dropped or failed the courses, which led him back to putting all his effort into working at Costco and moving up in the company. By 2009, Adam made his first big purchase—a condo in Chicago. All seemed right in his life at the time…until the housing crash in 2011, when property values dropped and taxes increased. His manageable $800 mortgage jumped to $1,400. Left with no other option, he became a statistic of the foreclosure crisis in 2015.
In 2009 he also met his future wife, Afsheen, who also came to the United States for a better life. He learned her immigration status was in question, and so in 2010 they quickly married to protect her from being forced to leave the United States.
Challenges continued. A glimmer of hope began to develop when Afsheen encouraged Adam to return to college. Her support was his drive for completing college successfully. He was now married and needed to make a better life for both of them.
Since his mom’s passing in 1997, Adam was carrying around a lot of emotions and bottled up feelings of loss. Afsheen also brought something else to Adam: confidence. After graduation from high school and his failed attempt at the community college, his confidence was low. Support from his family and friends was widely absent, leaving him with a wandering direction for his life.
Getting married at a young age, with limited direction in life and the continued immigration situation with his wife, they both were financially unstable. Afsheen’s work card would expire before she would be able to acquire a new one, which meant every year she would lose her job, putting the same old cycle back into motion. After they married in 2010, they were told she would receive her green card soon.
The card never came until last year.
These challenges with finances and her green card issues began to light a small spark of higher education into a wildfire. Adam realized in order to support a family and to have the “dream life” that we all strive to obtain, he would need to work very hard at college. With no true idea of what he wanted to do, Adam returned to college in 2010 and shortly found a passion for science.
The fire continued to ignite a new direction.
Adam’s passion for science and working with people began to lead him down a new path in life. A new career that five years earlier, never crossed his mind—to become an optometrist. Even though his interest in the eyes began at the age of 11 when he got his first pair of glasses, his confidence didn’t grow until he met his wife—so the idea of becoming a doctor was crazy, or at least he thought.
He began his dream to become an optometrist in 2010.
In 2011, he graduated from the community college with two associates degrees and then began his bachelor’s degree in 2012 at Northeastern Illinois University. While attending school full-time, Adam became an optician in 2013 for Costco, which meant working 40 hours and managing a home life. In 2013, Adam became the vice-president of the Tri-Beta Biological Honors Society.
He worked hard.
In 2014, Adam took the Optometry Admission Test (OAT) and did well. He began the tedious process of applying to optometry schools across the country. On September 23, 2014, his application for optometry school hit the admissions desk at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and shortly thereafter (the same day) an offer to interview followed.
On October 31, 2014, (which for many can be a scary day), Adam and his wife showed up to the College of Optometry to interview for a spot into the Class of 2019. Adam maintained his confidence while meeting with several members of the admissions team. He interviewed with Dr. Linda Marks and Dr. Thomas Landgraf and was offered admission the same day. On December 1, 2014, he officially accepted his seat into the Class of 2019.
He felt at home at UMSL and could see himself spending the next four years in St. Louis.
In the spring of 2015, Adam graduated with his degree with academic honors in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. Shortly after graduation, Adam transferred to a St. Louis-area Costco, and he and Afsheen began renting an apartment in West County.
A new chapter was beginning.
August quickly came and his optometric journey had begun. The next four years would prove to be a test in and out of the classroom—including things he would never expect.
During his second year of optometry school, Afsheen and Adam bought a house, remodeled it, and then a surprise—Afsheen was pregnant. In June 2017, they welcomed Elizabeth into the world. They decided to name her after his mother.
The rigor of the program put a strain on Adam and even Afsheen, but despite the struggles, Adam continued pushing on—even though moments crossed his mind to quit. He stayed focused. Earning his White Coat in May 2017, Adam had successfully completed his first two years of optometry school, and now it was time to enter clinic and prepare for NBEO Part I exam in March 2018.
A roadblock with the letter “C” presented itself in late summer 2017.
After seeing several doctors and undergoing tests, he was given some bad news in September: he had testicular cancer. He quickly went into surgery to remove the cancer, but the cancer had already begun to spread into his lymph nodes.
Faced with cancer, school commitments (classes and clinic) Adam and Afsheen had to make a decision about what to do for the family. Adam was required to begin chemotherapy in October—multiple rounds. Adam and Afsheen met with the administration regarding his educational journey. Adam didn’t want to take a break from the program, but Afsheen wasn’t so sure that he could manage both—but she would support him and his decision.
Adam didn’t quit.
He had a port installed in his chest, began chemotherapy, lost his hair, felt sick and weak, but he kept pushing on to completing his studies and clinical responsibilities. He also had to study for boards.
Chemotherapy is rough. Good days and bad days followed him. A new father who couldn’t hold his little girl because of the risk of infection—would often sit next to her and watch her for hours.
The fight continued.
Members of the UMSL family rallied around Adam and his family. Dr. Katie Boland started a food chain which was filled quickly by faculty, staff, and students. Some he knew well and some he didn’t. His classmates and members from other classes did what they could to support him during a rough time. Plenty of food arrived at the Wira household during his treatments.
This is family.
One thing about UMSL Optometry is the family feel that emulates through the halls. When help is needed, everyone rallies around to do what they can. In this trying moment for Adam, Afsheen, and Elizabeth, the college family was there.
While he began to lose confidence in himself during this time, he gained something new—courage. The courage to keep going and fight like never before. Proving to himself and to the world, you can’t knock him down, and he will rise above whatever was being thrown at him.
Never losing faith and the end goal in sight, Adam finished his fall semester and his last round of chemotherapy on November 28, 2017, and remains cancer free today. The monumental task of studying for boards was facing him head-on. Many times you would see Adam, walking through the halls of Marillac with tired eyes, limited hair that was slowly starting to come back—and endless pots of coffee he would make in the student services conference room.
He was determined to do well on boards.
Spring 2018 arrived, and that meant spring break was near, but before the break Adam’s next hurdle had to be jumped. Tying his shoes and with strong confidence he took Part I of boards in March 2018 with the rest of his class. Despite having overcome cancer—he was still on track.
After the test, he got a few days to rest and decompress from school—but now the wait for his results was on his mind. With the knowledge that board scores were set to be released sometime between May 9 and 12, 2018, the nerves began to run high through the class—including Adam. The wait for the email in his inbox produced many emotions. He remained optimistic.
In the afternoon of May 10th, 2018, around 3pm the little icon on his phone showed an email. Pushing the app’s button—the results were in. Regardless of the outcome, he was already a winner. He fought cancer and won.
Through all his hard work, dedication, tenacity, and sacrifice had paid off—he conquered cancer and Part I of boards. He was ready for the next chapter—Externships.
Now in his fourth year and preparing to graduate in May 2019, Adam has lived a life of ups, downs, and everything in between. What his story teaches us is that we make the circumstance what it is and how we deal with it is up to us. Never give up and surround yourself with a support system that can see (when you can’t) the potential that lies ahead.
In the years to come more chapters will be written, life will happen, he will graduate and start his optometry career. And he will be able to look back at where it all started and see that when you put your mind to it—anything is possible. You just need the confidence and courage to fight for what you want. Remember, nothing comes easy, but it means more when you work hard to achieve it. And that is exactly what Adam did.
Everyone has a story and this is his. So, what’s your story?