Social work professor overcomes life-changing brain condition

Nov 09, 2023
Vanessa Rials, professor at Newman University

One year ago, Vanessa Rials was in what a medical professional would refer to as “good health,” with no history of broken bones, surgeries or major health concerns. 

However, for about three years, the instructor of social work and director of field education at Newman University had been dealing with intense, pounding headaches and moments of not being able to function properly. 

“I vividly recall visiting numerous doctors and undergoing countless tests in my quest to understand the source of my suffering,” Rials said. “Despite my best efforts, I felt defeated and isolated. I knew something was wrong within me, but no one could pinpoint the issue.”

Rials’ doctor eventually referred her to a neurologist who conducted several MRIs. For the first time in months of testing and consulting with specialists, she finally felt understood and validated. 

“The MRI results brought a strange sense of relief even though they came with some scary results,” Rials said. “They revealed that I had Chiari malformation. By this point, my symptoms had become severe, including episodes of blacking out, difficulty speaking, swallowing, walking and more. The condition had taken over my life, yet I continued working, determined to excel in my new position at Newman. Many around me had no idea about the daily struggles I faced.”

Photos from Rials' progress in the ICU following brain surgery. (Courtesy photo)
Photos from Rials’ progress in the ICU following brain surgery. (Courtesy photo)

Rials learned that her condition was so severe that brain surgery was required. 

“Transitioning from a lifetime of good health to being told that brain surgery was necessary was an undeniably traumatic experience,” she said. “The emotional toll during the weeks leading up to the surgery still affects me today. It was the first instance in my life when the shape of my future became uncertain.” 

What kept her going, though, was her faith that God was in control and the unwavering support of loved ones. 

Rials’ surgery in June 2022 took nearly five hours, and she spent six days in the intensive care unit. 

“Even today, I deal with the mental and emotional aftermath of this experience,” she explained. “It has transformed me and significantly altered my perspective on life. Throughout it all, I felt God’s presence every step of the way. The love and support I received from others have been truly amazing.”

Recently, Rials was asked to speak at a conference focusing on the mental and emotional repercussions of traumatic brain injuries on both patients and their caregivers. 

Vanessa Rials, LMSW, Director of Field Education and Instructor of Social Work committed to making a difference by motivating and empowering others through teaching and storytelling. Specializing in trauma-informed practices and a licensed renowned speaker and youth mentor.

“At the time I was given this opportunity, the organizers had no knowledge of my medical history. They only knew me as a licensed master social worker who delivers presentations on mental health,” she shared. “This marked the first occasion on which I shared my personal story on a public platform. I genuinely consider this opportunity to be a divine blessing.” 

Rials explained it was Yelando Johnson, program director of Newman’s Master of Social Work program, division chair of social work and associate professor, who initially extended the invitation to speak at the conference. 

“She recognized my passion for presenting, and I genuinely appreciate her for offering me this remarkable opportunity,” Rials said. “I’m not entirely certain if she is aware of just how much this meant to me. Throughout this entire journey, she has provided unwavering support and has truly been a tremendous blessing.”

As a result of the speaking engagement, Rials was invited to speak at a conference in Kansas City and at the Capitol in Topeka.

“Once again, I consider these opportunities to be tremendous blessings,” she said. “Considering everything I have been through, I am immensely grateful for the opportunities I have today.”

Rials also recently launched her own speaking platform, Positive Perspective, through which she’s had the privilege of presenting and speaking on a wide array of topics, including mental health, the effects of trauma, cultural competence and more. 

Rials speaks on mental health, mental health, the effects of trauma, cultural competence and more. (Courtesy photo)
Rials speaks on mental health, mental health, the effects of trauma, cultural competence and more. (Courtesy photo)

Rials’ ultimate goal is to inspire those who are living with invisible illnesses or disabilities. 

“The challenges of dealing with conditions that aren’t visible can be incredibly tough to comprehend,” she said. “It can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration and occasional despair. Sometimes, even when surrounded by people who love and care for us, we can still experience profound loneliness. The daily mental and physical battles faced by many often go unnoticed.”

Rials believes it’s crucial to be kind to others because one never truly knows what someone else might be enduring. 

“I want to motivate and encourage others to continue their fight,” she said. “I vividly remember a doctor once saying to me, ‘Someone, somewhere has seen this before. Keep fighting.’ Those words have remained with me ever since.”