Katie Canaday Graduation

When a CUW photographer took this photo before my graduation ceremony in December, he had no idea he was capturing a truly miraculous moment.

Author’s Note, from Catherine “Katie” Canaday (’21): The events that led to the moment depicted in the photo above were arranged 100% by God! They are part of a story that I could not write and at times did not want to be a part of. Its conclusion, however, leaves me in awe of God and His sovereignty.

A Long Journey to a Short Walk

When I finally crossed the stage as a Concordia graduate in December, it was the conclusion of a journey that started in August 2003, when I was an 18-year-old kid moving into Augsburg Hall. My first two years as a traditional undergraduate student at CUW were great. However, during the fall semester of my junior year, I began experiencing some health issues. As symptoms worsened, I did my best to continue my studies, but the 300 miles that separated me from my doctor at home in Illinois made it difficult to get to the bottom of why I wasn’t feeling well.

Katie Canaday as Freddy Falcon
Katie as Freddy the Falcon, Homecoming week 2005, just when health issues were about to change the course of her life.

I made it through the fall semester that year, but declined to participate in Winterim in order to spend more time at home seeking a diagnosis. I was feeling worse than ever. With no diagnosis in sight, the night before I was to return to campus for the spring semester, I made a tearful, agonizing decision to remain at home.

It wouldn’t be so bad, I reasoned. I arranged to take a distance learning course while also picking up some credits at my local community college. I thought the worst-case scenario would simply be going back to CUW for my senior year. By the end of the semester, I realized I was wrong: The worst-case scenario was having no answers, which forced me to put my graduation dreams on the shelf and walk away.

Dreams put on Hold

The whole experience was not only hard on me, but also on my family. Education was very important to us. I loved school and loved to learn. As valedictorian of my high school class, I never doubted I would graduate from college.

It was difficult for all of us to wrap our heads around what was happening. Because “giving up” was so out of character for me (my mother often referred to me as her “strong-willed child”), I faced opposition from individuals I respected. It was suggested that I did not have what it took to graduate from college and I was accused of giving up when life became hard.  It was difficult to see past these comments and believe instead what God said about me. I felt like a failure.

Finally, seven years after leaving CUW, I received a shocking diagnosis. Throughout my life, I had slowly accumulated dangerous levels of lead in my system, which resulted in lead poisoning. Initially, my lead levels were measured at seven times the acceptable level – high enough to affect both my physical health as well as my ability to concentrate. At its worst, I maintained levels that were actually 77 times too high! This was previously unheard of by my doctor, who informed me that I should have died at a much lower number.

Katie with Clarence the Camel, part of her Puppet Ministry activities at CUW.

He explained it was basically a miracle that I was still alive — let alone able to feed and dress myself, drive a car, and work 40 hours per week (all of which I continued to do). I started treatments immediately and spent the next 15 weeks receiving IV chelation therapy, hoping and praying that the dangerous lead levels would come down and I would survive.

Needless to say, I am still alive to tell this story. Although I continue to live with and manage the effects of the lethal levels of lead (a condition that will require management for the rest of my life), God has blessed me through it all. As a patient, I discovered I had a passion for helping individuals with chronic conditions similar to mine. In 2016, that passion turned into a job as a patient advocate. In 2019, I earned my Master’s Certificate in Nutrition Response Testing® (which was a part of my treatment) and established a practice in the office that helped me recover from and manage my own condition.

Through it all, however, I never forgot my time as a student at CUW and how it ended. At times, I still felt like a failure.

Picking up the Pieces

Cue 2020 – the year that changed lives around the globe. Ironically, as the year began, I never felt better. God was bringing beauty from the ashes and I was living a life of purpose as a holistic health practitioner. Then I received notice that the pandemic was forcing the chiropractic office that housed my practice to downsize. In a single moment, I lost not only my job, but also my sense of purpose. I battled feelings of anxiety and depression, crying out to God and begging Him to light the path He wanted me to walk.

That path led back to CUW. Thanks to a miraculous series of God-orchestrated events, I was able to resume my education that summer on very short notice. With only seven classes to finish, my advisor, Heidi Tupper, told me she would see me walk across the stage to receive my diploma within a year.

I finished my final course the last weekend of August 2021—the same weekend that my parents had dropped me off as a freshman 18 years earlier. Once more – the girl with lead poisoning so severe that she should not be able to dress or feed herself (if by some miracle she was still alive) – finished Suma Cum Laude. God had restored to me the years that were taken away (Joel 2:25-26) and showed me that His plans for my life were greater than what others spoke over me (Isaiah 46:10). For me, that was more than enough. I didn’t see any need to make a big fuss over graduating or to walk at commencement.

But God wasn’t finished with me yet. And neither was Jeff!

Help when it’s Needed

Jeff came into my life when I least expected it. I wasn’t looking. To tell you the truth, I never really looked. Because of my history, I believed that no one would ever choose me. In response to Jeff’s three months of pursuit, I finally agreed to meet him for coffee, but only so I could tell him to “knock it off!” When that didn’t work, I explained to him—in detail—all of the reasons that there must be someone better out there that God intended for him. He patiently listened to my story—and chose to stay.

Jeff was there the day I lost my job. He cried with me and prayed for me as I searched for God’s direction for my life. He saw first-hand what it was like to manage the effects of my lead poisoning. Instead of running away, he ran toward me and made sure I understood that I did not fight alone. When we lost his father to cancer that same spring, he brought me into his family’s farming business. Meanwhile, he encouraged me to go back to school and became one of my biggest cheerleaders—lifting me up when I was down and rejoicing with me as I met each milestone.

In April 2021, when I found out that I would be receiving the School of Business Administration Adult Education Student of the Year Award, he hugged me and with tears in his eyes asked me to do him a favor: walk at graduation. Whoa … wait a minute. That would mean returning to the CUW campus and facing the painful memories of my last semester. Even though I was sick, in my mind, I left a failure. Deep down inside, I still wondered if there was truth in what others said about me. Did I give up when things got hard? Yes, I graduated, but it took me 18 years. Did I deserve to walk across the stage at graduation?

Secretly, I prayed for the “easy button”—that the ceremony would once again be virtual and that the decision to walk would be out of my hands. Again, I cried out to God, and He placed on my heart a will to not run or hide, but to face my fear and my past. God was calling me to be brave, like Esther (one of my favorite Biblical characters).

Katie with Freddie the Falcon in 2021
Katie with Freddy before the commencement ceremony.

The days leading up to the trip to Wisconsin were not without adversity. The week of graduation, I learned that, due to COVID-19, none of my family would be in attendance. However, because God brought Jeff into my life, He ensured that I would not be alone.

The weekend was filled with emotions. We met a friend, who I told fifteen years earlier that I would return for graduation, and the three of us explored the campus together. As so many memories came flooding back (the majority of which were positive), I was thankful for the time and the purpose God had for me during my time at CUW. Walking through the new School of Pharmacy, I saw a sign that said, “Your journey is unfolding exactly as it should be.”

As our exploring came to a close, I stood in the hallway outside the chapel – an area that had not changed much since I left. There I found myself remembering what it was like to feel sick, scared, and alone that last semester on campus. In that moment, I recall turning around and telling a vision of my former self, “It’s okay—you turned out strong—keep going.” An enormous wave of peace and joy washed over me. I smiled and finally felt proud of who I had become.

Beauty from the Ashes

I was finally excited for graduation day—until we left for campus on Saturday. What Jeff calls my “shy button” was fully activated and I was full of nerves. As he walked me to the auditorium, it took everything I had to put one foot in front of the other. I missed my family; I wanted them to be there with me. Surrounded by people I had never met, I suddenly felt alone. As Jeff was getting ready to leave to find a seat, he looked at me with tears in his eyes, and said, “I am so proud of you.” He took me into his arms and gave me a long kiss.

Jeff and Katie
Jeff and Katie on the CUW campus for December 2021 commencement.

Let me stop here and say this never happens. Neither one of us are public-display-of-affection people. The extent of our PDA is holding hands while we walk across the street. Not only did the kiss surprise me, but while I was wrapped up in this sailor-returning-from-WWII moment, I heard the click of a camera and the photographer say, “this is gold.” From that moment, I knew I had to find that photo.

A few weeks after graduation, Heidi was able to connect me with Mike Zimmerman, the photographer who had taken the photo for Concordia. When I told him there was a long story behind it, he wanted to hear more, and so here we are.

When I asked Jeff later what possessed him to kiss me like that in public, he responded that he wanted me to know how much I was loved and how proud he was of everything I had accomplished.

The photographer almost got it right, because to me, that photograph is worth more than gold. It is a reminder of a very special day, when God finished the chapter of a story 18 years in the making. He absolutely brought beauty from ashes. He showed me the truth of who I really am.

And He reminded me of how much I am loved not only by Him, but also by those He has brought in my life.

To learn about Adult Accelerated degree programs at Concordia University Wisconsin, visit cuw.edu.

If this story has inspired you, why not explore how you can help further Concordia's mission through giving.