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Seminary graduate helps others, finds self

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By Robert Villanueva

On May 22, Paula Welch Strange graduated from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, which she hopes to use to help others.

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To reach that day in her life, the 50-year-old Elizabethtown resident had to face single parenthood, juggle multiple jobs simultaneously and surmount brain cancer.

While living in Tennessee during the 1980s, Strange worked two or three jobs at times to make ends meet as a single parent. Her main job — the one with benefits — required a 45-minute drive, meaning that much more time away from her 2-year-old and 4-year-old.

“What I found the hardest (was) not spending time with them,” Strange said.

Though she began college undergraduate courses right after graduating high school in 1978, she couldn’t maintain a full course of classes while working.

“I was blessed with parents who were willing to help,” Strange said. “But sometimes I was hesitant to ask.”

Those were times when Strange had a whole different mindset about what she should strive for.

“I thought I wouldn’t be successful until I made a million dollars,” she said.

Getting to that point, she thought, meant working hard and being strong.

“You don’t ask for help,” she said. “You certainly don’t ask for help.”
Most of her jobs were in the field of education, including a job at the University of Memphis where she worked as a facility coordinator. During that stint, she discovered a Christian chat room where she met Patrick.

They developed an online relationship that began as friends.
“Ultimately, we married,” she said.

That was in March of 1998.

By then she had already moved to Elizabethtown. Not long after she began working in an attorney’s office. Strange was at her desk one day when something frightening happened.

“All of a sudden everything went white blind,” she said.

The blindness was accompanied by flashes of light and a severe headache. She said she was frozen with fear and unable to see as office staff, and eventually her husband, came to her aid.

On July 7, 2002, Strange was diagnosed with a brain tumor the “size of a chicken egg,” she said. Twelve days later, she underwent surgery.

As she was in the recovery room, Strange heard the doctor telling her husband she would not be in a good mood when she regained consciousness.

So she started singing doxology, a Christian verse.

Strange said she doesn’t remember much about that weekend. But on Monday her doctor told her there was bad news and worse news. The bad news was that they didn’t remove the tumor completely during the surgery. The worse news was that it was cancer.

That was the beginning of regular radiation treatments at James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville. Those treatments appear to have been successful.

“This is the first year the oncologist said he wouldn’t have to see me for a year,” Strange said.

The experience has left her with mixed feelings.

“I never wanted to be a cancer survivor, ever,” Strange said.

Some of her family members, including a grandmother and sister, died from cancer, she said. She wondered why she should be the one to survive.

Strange’s husband said the experience provided a special opportunity for his wife.

“Paula was incapacitated for many months after her brain surgery,” Patrick Strange said. “She was forced to be still and rest and to be cared for rather than to care for others. This was a difficult place for her to go, but it has enriched her perspective on life more than even she realizes, I believe.”

Throughout her life, Strange continued pursuing her education.
“I did manage to go enough to keep my credits current,” she said.

Graduating from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary is the culmination of her desire to do work that helps others. Strange plans to work as a licensed marriage and family therapist, eventually opening her own office.

Another example of Strange helping others is reflected in her involvement working with Warm Blessings soup kitchen years ago. She recalled working with John Chadbourn when the agency was just a start-up.

“We were in the basement of College Heights United Methodist Church,” Strange said. “I heard John speak about this vision he had of the soup kitchen and felt like this was something I wanted to be a part of from the onset.”

Interacting with the guests at the soup kitchen, she said, helped confirm her calling to become a marriage and family therapist.

Among Strange’s virtues are tenacity, intelligence and honesty, her husband said. He is proud of those virtues and all that she has done. Most of all, he is proud of who she is.

“She is definitely her own person; she does not try to be like anyone else or pretend to be something she isn’t,” Patrick Strange said. “I am very lucky to have her in my life.”

Learning to just be who she is — a self-described “complex” person — is probably her biggest achievement, she said.

“I would not trade my life for anyone else’s right now,” she said.

Robert Villanueva can be reached at (270) 505-1743.