She remembers colorful tiles and the hospital smell. She remembers the piggy bank with her name on it that someone had given her before an overnight stay. She remembers that her parents never put out many baby pictures because she had no hair.
Because — she remembers — she was in chemotherapy.
Alexandra Solowinska was diagnosed with cancer as a toddler. She underwent treatment at Stony Brook University Medical Center with doctors Robert Parker and Devina Prakash. Now 18, she’s entering her first semester at the university as a recipient of the Daniel Brooks Memorial Education Award, a scholarship given to students who have undergone cancer treatment here.
After her recovery, she kept this part of her past a secret, telling no one but her closest friends and teachers through high school.
“I was always afraid that if I talked about it that people would judge me,” she said. “I know how people treat other people’s disabilities. It was my thing.”
Solowinska, who plays tennis and has volunteered at both Stony Brook University Hospital and Long Island Eastern Hospital near her home in Mattituck, has just taken the first step toward what she calls her life’s ultimate goal: becoming a physician.
“It was always my dream to walk through those doors as a doctor, not a patient,” Solowinska said with a cracking voice and a tear in her eye. “It feels so good to come back to where I belong, especially when I visit the eleventh floor.”
The eleventh floor of Stony Brook University Medical Center houses the children’s hospital, where Solowinska returned for annual checkups for years.
To Solowinska, the medical center more than just her home away from home.
“Sometimes I wander off through the hospital,” she said. “I go to Starbucks or I find somewhere else to sit and read. Watching the physicians going by in their lab coats makes me feel secure.”
Solowinska’s early years in public school were stressful. Her hair was still short, she explained. None of her fellow students had made the connection to chemotherapy, she said, which she was thankful for.
She spoke English as a second language, and had trouble spelling her full 19-letter name in kindergarten until her teacher took the time to sit down with her and teach her to form the letters with a length of yarn.
School officials were unsure whether Solowinska’s ordeal would affect her ability to learn.
“Alex was certainly one of those special students who did not come along very often,” said Colleen McGowan, a Stony Brook alum (class of ‘95) who was Solowinska’s high school chemistry teacher and one of the few people who knew about her history. “She told me from day one she wanted to be a doctor and continues to strive for that dream. She was hands-down the hardest working and most motivated student I have ever had.”
McGowan became a mentor to Solowinska during her high school years.
“It was like a chemical bond,” the 18-year-old said of her close relationship with the teacher. “It was amazing to be able to talk to someone about [the past].”
Solowinska was a fighter who consistently overcame obstacles, McGowan said.
“You can’t say to her, ‘You can’t,’ because she will undoubtedly prove you wrong,” McGowan said. “She’s overcome more adversity than most people will in a lifetime.”
She grew into a top student at Mattituck JR/SR High School. She became a student-athlete who played varsity tennis, and is now rehabbing a torn meniscus and partial ACL tear in her knee to try out for Stony Brook Club Tennis.
“I fought it like a girl,” Solowinska said of her cancer. “To all the girls, fight like a girl. Fight everything and never give up.”