Paying it forward

Devastating diagnosis spurs Army veteran to bring health information to the underserved
October 16, 2019

From battling a rare condition to exhibiting selfless service during one of the most devastating times in American history, Donaji Stelzig has had quite a journey to graduate school. This coming December, she looks forward to graduating with her doctorate degree in health promotion and community health sciences from the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

Stelzig’s life changed when she discovered she had an infertility condition. “It was devastating because I really wanted to have children,” Stelzig said. “At the same time, having such a rare disease helped me to recognize how fortunate I was to have access to health care that so many others do not and ultimately fueled my passion to provide health education to disadvantaged communities.”

Stelzig’s sister encouraged her to get involved in the community as a health promoter where she was eventually exposed to her next career.

“During this time, my sister told me about a job opening for a research assistant for someone fluent in Spanish,” Stelzig said. “I’m an accountant by training, and my initial worry was that I wasn’t qualified. However, this was a great opportunity I couldn’t pass up, so I decided to apply.”

Stelzig did get the job and enjoyed it so much that she decided to pursue a master’s degree in public health. However, that opportunity was eventually cut short when Stelzig decided to step up and serve her country.

“9-11 happened, and I knew I had to help my country in some way, so I enlisted in the Army Reserve. When I reported for boot camp, I was one of the oldest in the entire company, but that didn’t stop me from giving my best. During this time, I had emergency surgery to remove a large cyst from my uterus. When I returned to boot camp, I was really worried that I wouldn’t pass my physical.”

Even after being cut open from hip to hip, Stelzig was one of three women in her platoon to pass the first physical test. She honorably served in the Army Reserve and continued to promote health education through jobs at MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas Children and the Harris County Health System before applying to the Texas A&M School of Public Health’s doctoral program.

After serving in the Army Reserve for eight years during the Iraq War, she was looking for a school that had an abundance of resources for veterans.

“I also wanted to be a part of a school that embraced the spirit of selfless service, especially when it came to addressing health disparities in today’s society,” Stelzig said. “Texas A&M not only has programs that allow veterans to easily transition into civilian life, but the School of Public Health also offers a close-knit, supportive community, something that is not available at many other higher education institutions.”

While pursuing her doctorate, Stelzig served as a conservator for two children, one of which was a disabled refugee, and took care of her aging parents.

“I remember one time visiting both my husband and mother in the hospital at the same time when they were sick. My professor and academic advisor, Dr. Marcia Ory, has been a great professional role model but first of all a wonderful human being that worked with me when I needed to slow down due to illness, family loss or having a new job. The compassion and love I was extended while attending the school from the faculty are what encouraged me to push through these difficult times.”

Stelzig has successfully defended her dissertation and is preparing to graduate from the School of Public Health in December. Her doctoral training helped her in obtaining a position at the University of Houston, where she will develop her own original program to train community health workers to successfully assist residents in disadvantaged communities throughout Houston. When looking back at how far she has come, Stelzig said she is thankful for the positive relationships she created while at the School of Public Health.

“For anyone who’s in my shoes, or even worse, I would tell them, they can do it,” Stelzig said. “I was extremely tired and defeated at times, but I persevered through my hardships and refused to give up. I knew I could do it, and I did, through hard work and the guidance and encouragement of a wonderful academic advisor.”

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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