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Jess battles back from serious illness to complete her Masters at Queen's University Belfast

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Jess Fitzsimmons, who graduated from Queen’s University with a Masters in Creative Arts with commendation

Jess Fitzsimmons, who graduated from Queen’s University with a Masters in Creative Arts with commendation

Former Ireland rugby star Brian O’Driscoll receives an honorary doctorate

Former Ireland rugby star Brian O’Driscoll receives an honorary doctorate

Frances Burn and son Caleb (6)

Frances Burn and son Caleb (6)

Stephanie Hardie, who graduated with a BSc in Midwifery Sciences

Stephanie Hardie, who graduated with a BSc in Midwifery Sciences

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Jess Fitzsimmons, who graduated from Queen’s University with a Masters in Creative Arts with commendation

It's the day that Jess Fitzsimmons and her parents thought she might not see.

The young Belfast woman has battled through a severe heart condition and graduates today with a Masters degree at Queen's University - despite having to drop out of her course last year.

She, along with Irish rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll, are among the several hundred students who are graduating this week in the university's winter graduations.

O'Driscoll, or BOD as he was known in his rugby career which saw him capped 133 times for his country, received an honorary degree for his contribution to the sport.

Ireland's record try scorer, who has swapped playing for TV punditry since his retirement last season, said: "I am delighted to be receiving an honorary degree from Queen's University, Belfast.

"To receive this recognition from such a prestigious university is a considerable honour."

Jess was struck down by constrictive pericarditis of the heart in March 2013 and was hospitalised for more than two months during her Masters degree course in Creative Arts.

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It was an illness that threatened to limit the 24-year-old's life and end her career aspirations, but she refused to let the condition destroy her dreams.

Not only did the east Belfast woman succeed in completing her Masters, she gained a commendation for her efforts.

Jess told the Belfast Telegraph last night: "I had been having a lot of chest pain and I was going to the doctors off and on and no one could really say what was wrong with me.

"But then one day it got so bad that I became very unwell and lost consciousness.

"I was then hospitalised for a couple of months. The absolutely worst thing for me to have done was to withdraw from my Masters. It was awful.

"I had already completed the first term and Queen's then told me that I could come back this February and take up where I left off."

She added: "This is all a bit surreal to me, as this time last year I had still not started back to university.

"I can't really believe that it's over, it's past and I've done it.

"Now I can relax a bit and I'm happy with the outcome."

Her father, Sam Fitzsimmons, said that he and his wife Irene will be delighted to see their daughter graduate.

"We will be very proud parents tomorrow as Jess has not allowed her illness - which she is still receiving treatment for - to define her as a person.

"We are amazed at how she has tackled this incredibly personal challenge and she has inspired us as her parents."

Although Jess is still receiving medical treatment, she now feels more confident about her future career and has secured a paid internship with the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board in Belfast.

She said: "Hopefully I will be able to get off the medication over the next two years, as being on the medication would be harmful to me over the long-term."


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