Candice Patterson to speak at Great American Teach-In

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tampa Bay Times article by Rich Shopes about Candice speaking at Riverview High for the Great American Teach-In.

Candice Patterson awoke feeling woozy, tired and in pain. Her head was bandaged and she couldn't see.

It was 2005 and Patterson, a paramedic, lay in a bed in a Tampa hospital. She had endured yet another surgery to remove tumors from the side of her face, this time behind the right eye.

Patterson has Type-2 neurofibromatosis, or NF, a condition that causes spider-like polyps at the nerve endings and afflicts about 1 in 25,000.

She has endured near annual surgeries since infancy. The procedures are so invasive that the right side of her face is permanently swollen. A tumor damaged the optic nerve and left her nearly blind in the right eye.

She has every reason to despair at her condition. At 41, she's undergone 26 tumor-removing surgeries. But in 2005, as the bandages came off and the months-long recovery process began yet again, Patterson opted to chronicle her recuperation in an online diary.

Her story was meant to inform relatives and friends of her progress so she and her husband Jason wouldn't have to spend long hours on the phone. She called it the "Butterfly Challenge." Along the way, she inspired people.

Little did she know when she began that she would be asked to stand before a roomful of Riverview High School Students as part of the Great American Teach-In, an annual statewide event in which speakers talk to students about their career choices and lives. Participants scheduled to speak Thursday throughout Hillsborough County range from doctors, engineers and government officials to a local physical education teacher who won a gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico last month.

Patterson will talk about her continuing battle with NF.

While still recovering at the hospital, Patterson resolved to participate in the annual Gasparilla Distance Classic 5K, then about 12 weeks away.

She started with short walks along the hospital's corridors.

She scribbled inspirational messages on a white board along with daily goals: Walk an extra block. Cut back on pain meds.

She surrounded herself with upbeat friends and family to brighten her spirits and run errands.

"I'm beaten and bloody. I'm covered in sutures. I'm bruised. I don't look like myself. And then slowly I begin to feel better. It's a long journey. It's a long journey from the cocoon to recovery," she said.

On the day of the 5K in February 2006, Patterson, still reeling from pain but cheered on by friends and family, endured to the end. Her story wouldn't go unnoticed.

A few years ago, her cousin, Liz Stewart, a choral instructor at Riverview High, invited Patterson to speak to her class about overcoming obstacles.

"Kids today have a tendency to be superficial and to look only at the person on the outside," Stewart said. "After they hear Candy's story, they really start to look at the person differently."

Camila Rodriguez, 16, a junior at Riverview High, was one of those given a new perspective.

"The fact she has gone through so much and has stayed so positive, I began to think, 'Why should I be so miserable with whatever problem I'm going through? Just get through it.' She has made me want to help others," she said.

Patterson will have a much larger student audience on Thursday when she addresses the students at Riverview High.

Her message: Don't shrink from life's challenges.

"I'm 41, and I've never met a human being that wasn't teased in (her) life," she said. "Whether you have freckles, you look funny, it doesn't matter. I think every human being has to develop a sense of themselves and how to deal with people that react to them in a negative way."

Richard Shopes can be reached at