Christmas was just around the corner, but holiday preparations and cheer were the last things on Cassie Doutt’s mind that December 2011 night at the hospital. What was going to happen to her family? Was her sister going to be well again? And what about school and work?
Cassie looked over at her sister Sereena in the hospital room, a 15-year-old girl who had just been told that her kidneys were functioning at one percent, her blood pressure was through the roof and her body was in severe toxic shock. Sereena’s body puffed out; she couldn’t breathe; her joints were in extreme pain. Yet behind this autoimmune attack that was trying to consume her body, Cassie saw her sister’s determination to conquer all odds. And it was exactly then that Cassie knew what she had to do. She had to keep working; she had to keep her faith alive; she had to be the strength to lift her sister up when everything else was trying to pull her down.
The two years leading up to this moment hadn’t exactly been easy for Cassie. In the fall of 2009, she entered UC Irvine as a freshman drama major, ready to pursue her dreams of directing. Her first year went well — she enjoyed her classes, met great friends and adjusted quickly to life at UCI.
At the end of fall quarter of her sophomore year, things turned in a completely different direction. Her family’s transportation company went out of business, her stepfather got into an accident that left him unable to work and she quickly realized that she couldn’t afford tuition at UCI anymore.
“I felt like my education, with the severity of what was going on in my family life, was being stripped away from me, and I didn’t know what to do,” Cassie said.
Without another solution, she left UCI, moved to Los Angeles and took two jobs — one at a film production house and the other at a maternity store. She worked 70 hours a week to afford living expenses and to give money to her family. This was the first time she had ever worked outside of the school system, and she had to quickly learn how to survive on her own.
Cassie lived like this for a year, slowly putting away money to come back to school. She was not going to give up on her education.
“After a year of scraping my knees, learning what it’s like to be in the real world, gaining that experience and becoming an independent woman who has a lot of strength, and who is able to decide with a lot of integrity on how to continue to pursue what she wants, I was able to re-enroll into school by November of 2011,” she said.
Things were starting to look up at this point. However, as she was working to direct a play for the upcoming 2012 winter quarter, Sereena’s health went downhill.
In December 2011, Sereena was diagnosed with Lupus nephritis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the kidneys, skin, joints and nervous system. In Sereena’s case, if her family had waited three days to admit her to the hospital after observing her symptoms, she would have died.
The night that Sereena was admitted to the hospital, Cassie felt a renewed strength to keep pushing on and to help her sister. She had already spent a year on her own and gotten back into school — this was just another obstacle that she knew could successfully be overcome.
“I remember that night, being there at the hospital, thinking about school, thinking about my family, and my sister … she’s 15, and to see her struggle so hard to maintain any source of life, and to really fight, really inspired me to keep on fighting and keep being persistent,” she said.
After surgery that night, Sereena was put on dialysis and struggled for the next month just to survive. She was stabilized by January 2012, but that wasn’t the end of her issues. Cassie had to take Sereena to the doctor each week, while juggling 20-24 units at UCI and working 35-40 hours a week. The money that she earned went right to her family, as her stepfather still couldn’t work, her mother was still unemployed and her sister needed all the support she could get.
For the past year, her family’s welfare has rested on Cassie’s shoulders. But now, things are moving in a positive direction, and her sister is mostly stable. And in June, Cassie will graduate from UC Irvine — on time.
After everything Cassie experienced during these years, the one thing she wants now is to let people know that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and they can overcome adversity.
“I want others to know that there is hope; there is a future,” she said.
“And if they are able to find that love in themselves to pursue their dreams incessantly and with passion and motivation, that they can get anywhere that they want. And they will graduate.”