Virginia hospice patient receives honorary college degree

Hospice of the Piedmont
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) — A Charlottesville woman who is a hospice patient has completed a dream by receiving a diploma from the University of Richmond.

This past weekend, Kathryn “Kat” Byrd-Colbert, who is 59 and battling end-stage colon cancer, earned an honorary degree and walked across the stage during commencement thanks to the help of her family and the staff at the university.

“I wanted to be a lawyer since I was ten years old,” she said of the desire to pursue higher education and eventually earn a law degree.

However, her youngest daughter Schuyler says she didn't have the support or confidence to complete that dream and actually dropped out of high school at the age of 16.

When Schuyler was a senior in high school, Kat started working toward her GED and they both received high school degrees in May of 2011.

That fall, when Schuyler went off to college, Kat also began her college career toward earning an associate's degree in litigation paralegal at the J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond.

Kat completed that degree in 2014, and mother and daughter graduated from college that May.

She then applied to the University of Richmond, where she worked toward a bachelor's degree from August 2014 to late 2018. She was just three classes short of earning that degree when her financial situation changed and she was unable to continue paying for college courses and books.

Then in April of this year, Kat was diagnosed with colon cancer with metastasis and she entered hospice care with Hospice of the Piedmont in Charlottesville.

Following that diagnosis, Kat's three children talked about her lifelong goal of finishing college.

So her other daughter, Olivia, reached out to administrators at the University of Richmond to see if she could be awarded an honorary Juris Doctorate at this year's graduation.

Unfortunately, restrictions on the university's regulations meant such a degree could not be awarded, but the university could and did give her an honorary bachelor's degree.

Kat's children filled out the paperwork and then told her the news.

Due to her cancer treatments, the family was not sure Kat would be able to walk across the stage, but she was able to do it on May 11, which was also Mother's Day.

“My mom's nurse Lisa Olko has been so phenomenal in helping to keep my mom comfortable and keep her spirits up,” said Schuyler. “We weren't sure mom would be able to attend the commencement because of her health. Lisa has been so supportive and excited for her graduation. Having a caretaker that was so excited has helped mom keep her head up, and ultimately helped her be able to attend the commencement ceremony on Mother's Day weekend.”

At the graduation ceremony, Kat had a cap and gown and even wore the purple sash that is traditionally given at graduation to JD candidates.

With the help of a walker and one of her former professors, she crossed the stage and accepted her honorary degree.

Afterward, when she returned to Hospice of the Piedmont's Hospice House, Kat got a card signed by the staff and a gift to celebrate.

Kat's condition is terminal, but she completed that dream thanks to help from her family, the staff and faculty of the University of Richmond, and the staff at the Hospice of the Piedmont.

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