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2014 Distinguished Alumni Award for Service — Susan Arthurs
Susan Arthurs knows how epilepsy can change a life. The Central Missouri alumna spent 11 years flying Boeing 737s through the nation's skies until asleep one night, she had a seizure. She was diagnosed with epilepsy, stripping away her job, career and hobby. Even though her seizures could be controlled by medication, she could never again fly a plane.
"I tried every angle to get it diagnosed as something else, so I could fly, but eventually I gave up my dream and desire," says Arthurs, who in 1978 became the eighth woman ever hired as a pilot by United Airlines. She found a new passion, producing an award-winning documentary, starting the nonprofit Alliance for Epilepsy Research and creating a series of books with interactive CDs for grades K-12. For her efforts to promote epilepsy awareness and research, she will receive the UCM Alumni Association's 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award for Service this fall.
Epilepsy affects more than three million people in the U.S. and at least 60 million people worldwide. More Americans have epilepsy than have muscular dystrophy, AIDS, HIV, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease combined, said Arthurs.
"My first seizure ended my career as an airline pilot and ended my hobby of flying my own small airplane," she said. "I was convinced that I was being forced down a totally different path but I kept coming back to aviation."
That path brought her to UCM in 1993 to work on a master's degree in aviation safety. She finished the degree in one year and stayed in Warrensburg another 11, teaching in the university's nationally renowned aviation program. Her work as assistant professor opened a door for her to teach online courses at a college near her home in Michigan.
In addition to teaching aviation classes at UCM, she also made friends with communication professor, Doug Underwood, now retired. Together they produced the documentary, "It is Epilepsy – The Challenges and Promises of Automated Seizure Control." The nine-year effort won awards throughout the world, including the El Capitan Film Award at the Yosemite Film Festival, Gold Kahuna Award for Excellence at the Honolulu Film Festival, Van Gogh Award for Best Educational Film at the Amsterdam Film Festival, Silver Ace Award at the Las Vegas Film Festival, and Silver Palm Award at the Mexico International Film Festival.
"Now looking back, I see myself on two parallel paths, aviation and epilepsy," said Arthurs. "They intersected several times at UCM and resulted in the university playing huge parts in my life." Along the way, Arthurs has inspired thousands of people.
One colleague said, "Susan is an international leader in epilepsy research, not because she wanted to be but because she had to be. Her grassroots efforts in epilepsy research have affected more people around the world than many of the international epileptologists studying the disease today."