Caring for those in Need

Montclair State University Graduate Spotlight: The Power of Perseverance

Layla Tamimi chokes up when sharing that she went into the hospital on July 11, 2018, and woke up more than two months later paralyzed from the neck down. It’s difficult for the once active, healthy jogger to recall and retell the story of how close she came to dying at age 27.

BY Sylvia A. Martinez | March 2024 | Category: Vision, Hearing and Speech

Montclair State University Graduate Spotlight: The Power of Perseverance

She was in a medically induced coma and her organs had started to fail. Her family had been prepared for the worst. Miraculously, Tamimi awakened to the news that she’d suffered a stroke in addition to three rare spinal strokes while hospitalized.

She remembers bits and pieces of her ordeal, the rest filled in for her by family members. Lying in her hospital bed, she’d forgotten she had a daughter. But when the 7-month-old baby was brought to her bedside, she knew what she was fighting for. “I remembered her, and it made me want to fight more, to get up and do what I needed to do so that I could go back to her,” Tamimi recalls.

The young mother left the hospital in a wheelchair. “I couldn’t really do much on my own,” she says. “I had to learn how to speak again. I had to learn how to swallow again, how to stand, how to sit…. It was weeks before I was able to sit on my own. I was sitting in a tilt wheelchair, which is one that they strap your neck in so that you don’t fall over because you don’t have that strength or the ability to keep yourself up.”

Tamimi fought her way back, not just from the brink of death but to stand and walk on her own two feet and with the assistance of a walker. It was that same hard work and dedication – and a vow she made – that would lead her back to school and eventually to Montclair State University, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Public Health. She was set to participate in Montclair’s Winter Commencement on January 8 but a pending surgery derailed those plans.

Tamimi refers to herself as “a part-time wheelchair user,” but says, “I still have hope that I’ll be able to walk on my own one day.” Even with ongoing health issues, she knows how far she’s come.

Incredibly, she’s come to view her harrowing experience as “a little gift that God gave me that was wrapped in ugly paper but when I opened it, it was the most beautiful gift possible.”

That’s because it made her focus on the things that mattered, she says. “My disability has slowed me down in life, in my day to day,” she says, “but I feel like it pushed me 10 years forward. So that’s how I look at it because I was able to go back to school, and I was able to get my life together in ways that I never thought I could.” 


Born in the occupied West Bank, Tamimi arrived in the United States at age 1. One of six children, she grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Paterson, New Jersey. She enrolled in college at 18 but after her father was diagnosed with leukemia, she dropped out to help care for him and to work three jobs, including retail and as a pharmacy technician, to help her mother make ends meet. After her father’s death, she returned to school at age 21 but says she was too depressed to keep going; she also began experiencing joint pain and other health problems. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Fast forward to age 27, Tamimi’s health further declined, and she says she suffered from postpartum depression. One day, while doing yoga, she didn’t have the strength to get up off the floor. She knew something was terribly wrong. Eventually, she was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. It was in the hospital that Tamimi had multiple strokes.

Grueling therapies – physical, speech, occupational and more – followed her hospitalization. Everyday movements and tasks were difficult for her. “I took for granted the ability to hold a pen, and I thought to myself, ‘God if you let me hold this pen again, I’m going back to school. I don’t care how difficult it is.’

She regained that ability but lacked fine motor skills. Undaunted, she made good on her promise and enrolled at Bergen Community College and took notes on dry erase boards with jumbo markers, she says. “I knew it was going to be difficult but I figured, this is the hardest thing I could possibly go through, so school should be a breeze” by comparison, she says.

Tamimi transferred to Montclair in fall 2021. She decided to study Public Health, in part, she says, to educate other young people to not take being healthy for granted. “I want the youth to be aware that just because you’re young, you’re not immune to getting sick or becoming disabled,” she says. “It can happen to anyone, no matter how healthy you think you are.”

Initially, Tamimi would take a Lyft to campus; the driver would get her as close to her destination as possible, a security gate on Webster Road behind University Hall, and then she’d begin the arduous block-long walk with her walker to University Hall for her Public Health courses. One day, she was spotted by Yvelices Núñez, who drives the shuttle for students with disabilities, who told her she would ferry her to all of her classes. “Yvelices was a godsend,” Tamimi says.

Meanwhile, Tamimi was learning to drive again but she was reluctant to drive to Montclair on Route 46 from her home in Lodi. In January 2022, she started driving and commuting to campus, where the shuttle would meet her and take her to her classes. Montclair’s shuttle service allowed Tamimi to get around campus with the use of her wheelchair and a cane for short distances.

Tamimi says prior to that. “I never looked at life as a disabled person, so I thought I have to figure it out myself,” she says, “but the University made things so easy for me.” 


Tamimi, now 33, is grateful for the support she received while at Montclair. Her anxiety of being on a large campus slowly subsided, she says. When she needed something to overcome an obstacle, she asked. “I felt like I was blessed,” she says, adding “it was definitely like the best decision of my life to go into the public health field.”

Moreover, every achievement made her stronger.

“A lot of it came with going to the University because it gave me the confidence to do more instead of staying at home and doubting myself,” she says. “Every time I got my grades back, it just made me more confident. My GPA was 3.97 when I graduated, so I was really proud about that.”

Public Health department faculty also are proud of Tamimi. Professor Kurt Conklin, who had her in several classes, including Applied Statistics in Public Health, says she enriched the classes because of her life experiences.

Early in her final semester, Tamimi contacted Conklin because she’d been injured during physical therapy and couldn’t attend class. “She had fallen off a treadmill and sustained injuries,” he recalls. “We didn’t want to lose her for another semester, so while she recovered, we were able to use Zoom to patch her into the existing in-person course. She did fantastically, and the course involves a lot of student-group projects, which can be very demanding. She did a great job.”

That situation brought Tamimi to the attention of Public Health Department Chairperson Lisa Lieberman. “She was actually taking five courses that semester, and she did stellar work in all five of them,” Lieberman says. “She had this additional injury on top of her existing challenges, and she just excels, as she does in everything.”

That same semester, in April 2023, Tamimi won the Department of Public Health Outstanding Achievement Award, “presented to a student who has gone above and beyond to represent the Department of Public Health by embodying its core values of social justice and health equity, instilling those values in others, and achieving recognition among faculty and students for their accomplishments.”

Says Lieberman, “She does not let her disability stop her in any way. Her consistent effort both in classes and working for the betterment of the community [she interned at Project COPE] is just simply outstanding. We are so infinitely proud of her.”

Tamimi is now working on a master’s degree in Health Systems and Policy at Rutgers University. She has an interest in working in maternal health or on policies on behalf of people with disabilities. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, Tamimi says “there’s a long way to go before we can make the world fully inclusive to people with disabilities.”

Conklin and Lieberman have no doubts Tamimi has a bright future ahead of her. “Wherever she ends up, she’ll excel, and whoever hires her will be lucky to have her,” Lieberman says. 


Looking back, Tamimi acknowledges that even she is surprised by what she has achieved. “Where I am today is beyond what I ever envisioned,” she says, noting that she’s particularly proud of rearing her now 6-year-old daughter and completing her degree.

“I’m grateful because I was able to raise her as well as possible considering my situation, and she came out to be a great kid, very empathetic, very understanding,” she says. “I’m going to be honest, if it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if I could have done it. She pushed me so much to do my best.”

Today, Tamimi is able to walk more with a walker and “sometimes a cane for short distances,” she says. “I still work hard. I try my best to work out at home, I still have hope that I’ll be able to walk on my own one day.”

She also hopes to start a nonprofit organization, operating a barrier-free gym for people with disabilities.

“As humans, we’re unstoppable,” Tamimi marvels. “We just have three things we have to do when we’re at a halt in life: accept, adjust and adapt. Those are my three laws in life. Accept that your situation is happening, no matter what it is, because if you don’t accept it, you can’t acknowledge how to fix it. Adjust for the changes, whatever the changes are. Whether you’re a single parent or you become disabled or you’re having difficulty in life, whatever the obstacle is, you adapt to that, then you’re doing everything everybody else is doing, just a little differently than you used to.” 


Sylvia A. Martinez is a Staff Writer for the The Communications and Marketing Department at Montclair State University. Contact her at 

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