Jeremy Craig, 404-413-1357
Ishmel Sampson graduates Saturday with a bachelor's in social work, inspired from experiences in a nursing home to become an advocate for the elderly and disabled.
If his former doctor's prognosis was correct, Ishmel Sampson should not be graduating this Saturday with a bachelor's in social work from Georgia State. Instead, Sampson was to have met an early grave.
But Sampson, who overcame a rare neurological disorder that paralyzed and nearly killed him, survived abuse and neglect in a nursing home. He's been inspired to advocate for elderly and disabled individuals in society who might not be able to speak up for themselves.
"It's been an experience," Sampson said. "I don't like it when people say I'm an inspiration. I don't know any other way but to make life better for myself and others."
In 2003, Sampson was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The disease is an autoimmune disorder where the body's immune system attacks part of the nervous system. The disease is relatively rare, with one to two cases per 100,000 people annually. Complications include respiratory failure, deadly blood clots, increased risk of infections - and in Sampson's case, paralysis. The disease paralyzed him progressively to the point where he was only able to blink.
He spent a year and a half in a nursing home - an experience that caused an inordinate amount of grief.
"When I was admitted into the nursing home, the doctor at the time told the nursing staff not to worry too much about me, because they felt like I would expire," Sampson said.
And he said that he experienced abuse and neglect because of that.
"I wasn't in pain, but I would cry out at night, and nurses would come in and say to me that I needed to be quiet - this is what God placed me here for, for a reason," Sampson said, adding that he also experienced physical abuse.
But he began to gain more use of his body, and became able to speak out about what he experienced and what he saw, such as people being left to sit in wheelchairs in hallways for hours on end. He befriended patients' family members, and found an advocate in a social worker.
"I saw that the social worker had a lot of power or avenues to advocate for patients," he said. "I started talking to the social worker, and I thought he had an interesting job. That was one of the reasons why I chose the profession, because of the injustice I saw."
He later enrolled at Georgia Perimeter College before going to Georgia State, where he strived to be at the top of his class.
"I felt that I did not want to be the one in the class to not do well," Sampson said. "Not that I was the smartest one in there, but I think I brought a different perspective. I think that was a plus for me and my fellow classmates."
Sampson also received assistance and a scholarship from GSU's Margaret M. Staton Office of Disability Services.
Nancy Kropf, director of the School of Social Work, noted his hard work in a letter recommending him for a scholarship.
"He has been a teacher and inspiration to his classmates in numerous ways," she said. "As one student said, when you see Ishmel, you see the person, not the disability. In his day to day life he demonstrates the talents of people with disabilities.
"But Ishmel's presence is greater than that. I suspect that the reason Ishmel does not complain is that his sense of gratitude overpowers any moments of frustration that he experiences," Kropf said.
Sampson has also made it through school after going through medical procedures, including cancer, kidney removal, and thyroid surgery.
After graduation, he said he would like to become an ombudsman, with a greater goal to pursue law school in his quest to advocate for people with disabilities and the elderly.
"I'd love to become a policymaker," he said.
Sampson's experiences at the nursing home will be with him for the rest of his life - including physical problems. He is confined to a wheelchair. Nursing staff did not try to exercise him, he said, in order to try to give him a greater range of motion.
"I will always have that as a constant reminder as to what might have happened had they done a little more," he said.
But for all of life's difficulties, Sampson said that the entire slate of experiences has helped to shape him.
"I don't regret anything," Sampson said. "The whole experience of being paralyzed in a wheelchair has only made me become a mature person. Had it not been for the syndrome, I never would have thought to go to school."
"All of my life I didn't have a dream," he said. "I was content. Now that I'm getting this degree, I don't know how I could have gone through life without doing something to achieve a dream."
May 2, 2011