Overcoming Insurmountable Odds: Meet Sharon Katzman

NJIT alumna and author Sharon Katzman

When she was 23, Sharon Katzman (class of 2006) was in a car accident so severe that doctors thought she wouldn’t live through the night. The crash left her in a coma with a rash of internal injuries and a traumatic brain injury.   

Miraculously, though, she survived. But when she emerged from the coma, Sharon, then a senior at Rutgers, had serious cognitive impairments: she essentially had to learn again how to walk, talk, and think.

Through the years, she endured multiple surgeries and long bouts of rehabilitation. She soon realized that it was hard for people to look at her and to listen to her stumbling speech.  Through it all, though, Sharon never lost her determination to learn. She finished her degree in biochemistry at Rutgers and eventually began working as a technical writer.

Then, in 2000, she decided to give herself an even bolder intellectual challenge. She enrolled in a master’s degree program at NJIT -- the Professional and Technical Communication degree. At that time, for her job in research, she was beginning to write more.  So she hoped the program would improve her writing. She never imagined, however, the profound effect that the program would have on her: for the classes not only helped her write better but to think better. The classes essentially helped her develop her intellect to the point that she finally overcame the cognitive deficits remaining from the car accident.

In this interview, Sharon talks about her intellectual triumph at NJIT. She also talks about another recent achievement of hers. In June, she published a book, Tearing Down the Wall, which -- 20 years after her accident -- documents how she learned to live her life over again. 

When you started the master’s program, did you still have cognitive problems?
When I started I was much better, though I still had some ongoing cognitive problems. During that time I had three operations. I had problems with my eyesight and my hearing. That’s partly why I was interested in a distance learning program -- on top of the practical reasons like not having to commute to campus.  Studying online was new to me, but I wanted to try it. Not only would distance learning allow me to work on my own schedule, but it would allow me to limit the impact of my ongoing cognitive deficits. By the time I finished the degree, these deficits were essentially resolved, but certainly at the time I started the degree I had no way to know that.

Did you start off with a certificate program and then move onto the master’s program?
Yes, I started by taking the classes offered as part of the certificate program. I was working at the time as a technical writer, and what I learned in class helped me in my work, and vice versa. I liked the classes so much that I took the GRE’s and applied to the master’s program. I got in and was able to transfer the certificate credits towards my master’s degree.  I started taking classes in 2000 and received my degree in 2006.  I took one class a semester, so that I could concentrate on each class and still do my work.  It worked out perfectly.

How did you like the master’s program? 
I can absolutely say that all of my teachers were great and added to my success, publishing my book and my work as a medical editor.  I was lucky, too, to be a part of such a motivated group of on-line students who certainly took learning upon themselves. The students were determined and intelligent. Working with them pushed me to be better.  Overall, the master’s program had wonderful impact on my life!

Your professors, and your fellow students, never knew that you had lingering cognitive difficulties when you were taking classes, right?
No one at NJIT knew about my injuries. I did that intentionally. I never asked my professors for extensions or had any other excuse for not doing my work.  I was there to do the courses like everyone else. I never used my injuries as a crutch. I never asked for special treatment.  I was in the program to do well like everyone else.

Talk a bit about your new book?
In the book, I use my personal experience to explain what it’s like to have a traumatic brain injury and what the long rehabilitation process is like. I have been told by professionals who have read the book that I succeeded in doing that.  I write about the difficulties I had, (such as socialization) and how I worked to overcome them.  It’s a sad story at first, but with an uplifting ending that shows the reader that if you work hard, you can overcome what seem at first like insurmountable obstacles. So it’s a book for everyone, not just people who’ve been injured, hurt, or sick. I’m thrilled to have finally published it.

Can you talk about your job as an editor?
Yes, I work as a medical and technical editor for pharmaceutical companies.  Good technical editing in the pharmaceutical industry is sadly lacking, so I think my work is helping to improve the field. I also hope to expand my role in medical writing. 

There seems to be one theme that connects your master’s degree, your book and your editing career: That if you work hard, you can overcome what seem like insurmountable obstacles?
That’s right, yes. By finishing the master’s degree I proved to myself that, even though I had cognitive difficulties, I could do graduate work.  And working at my job while writing the book was also difficult, but in the end rewarding. I hope my story inspires readers to realize that if they work hard enough and don’t give up, they too can tear down walls.   

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)