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Melissa O’Connell (Baltimore, MD): 2022 Pillars of Strength Scholarship Recipient

Melissa O’Connell Hopes to Use Education to Establish Home-based Career and Continue Caring for Her Seriously Injured Husband

When Melissa was introduced to Edward O’Connell in 2005, he was a highly decorated petty officer first class, who served as a Cryptologic Technician Network specialist for Naval Information Warfare Activity at the Office of Naval Intelligence at Fort Meade. He was one of the first 100 cryptologic technicians in the U.S. Navy and a man in demand. 

Melissa had no plans to marry—or even date—so it was with reluctance that she agreed to go out with Ed in June of 2006. Her shy 5-year-old son, and even her dog, bonded with her date in a way that amazed her.  She said she almost felt like “the fifth wheel” as her very articulate son chatted away with Ed and the normally protective dog licked his face.

Two years earlier, Ed had been involved in a terrible automobile accident. He was hit by a drunk driver being pursued by police and then by a second car as he spun out of control into oncoming traffic. He recovered enough to continue work, but social activities became increasingly difficult and repeated surgeries failed to resolve his problems.  

Nonetheless, Melissa and Ed married in 2009, two years after Ed was medically retired from the U.S. Navy and had started a contractor position with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration. 

Four years later, the couple found themselves in what Melissa characterized as the worst period of their lives together. 

During a botched surgery, Ed contracted the bacterial staph infection MRSA and suffered paralysis from his chest to his feet for seven days. Then he had acute numbness and painful burning from his waist down and reduced sensation in his legs and feet. He had to be transferred to a special rehabilitation hospital to learn how to stand and walk again. 

All told, he has undergone 12 major back surgeries, including a spinal fusion. After hundreds of hours of therapies, treatments, appointments and radiological tests, the doctors have concluded there isn’t anything more they can do for him except try to relieve the constant pain. Ed had to stop working in the summer of 2014. 

“I watched as my husband transformed from the ambitious, talented, positive, outgoing and loving man I knew to an extremely agitated, disillusioned, unemployable and inordinately hurt and angry—for a time—man,” Melissa said. “He endures unspeakable suffering every day.” 

The constant care that Melissa provides him is complicated. Ed, 49, cannot stand, sit or lie down for an extended period of time, so even taking him outside or in the car is a logistical nightmare. “Every movement causes him levels of pain that no one can understand,” Melissa explained. 

Melissa had to dissolve her home-cleaning and organization business in Baltimore so she could care for her husband. Her ambition now is to run a home-based business that enables her to generate income but includes the flexibility to be available to her husband as needed. The Pillars of Strength Scholarship she has been awarded at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) will allow her to complete a Bachelor of Art in Marketing with a minor in business administration.  

“I would like to go into an office, but it just isn’t feasible,” she said. “A degree like this just opens the opportunities tremendously to either start my own business or work for a company that affords me the ability to work from home.” 

She found the size of the scholarship overwhelming—full tuition as long as she needs to complete her degree—but it wasn’t the money that she found most gratifying. 

“You’re not receiving the money because you had a 4.0 grade point average or because you’re a woman or have a significant talent. This scholarship recognizes you as a person who just did the right thing for someone that you love,” she said.