Neither crushing headaches nor a somber diagnosis could dull Stefanie Martin’s wit.
The Clemson University semester was not yet a month in when a roommate suggested Stefanie visit the campus clinic and get those odd headaches checked out. A clinician there wanted her to get an MRI. Probably freshman stress. But just in case.
Then, on Sept. 10, the 18-year-old phoned her mother in Columbia with a deadpan question.
“Guess whose favorite daughter has a brain tumor?” Jana Martin remembered.
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Not once, to her mother’s knowledge, did that favorite daughter shed a tear of self-pity in the three months she knew of the cancer. Maybe it is the beautiful invincibility of youth, but ahead of a Saturday memorial service in Columbia, friends and family are remembering a young woman with a zest for life that outshone her ailment.
During that phone call, Martin told her mother she wanted to go to work that night, sling some food at Moe’s Southwest Grill, get her mind off of the thing. Later, she named it Marla, a nod to a Fight Club movie line: “If I did have a tumor, I’d name it Marla.” The next months were filled with trips home, doctor’s visits and a surgery to relieve fluid pressure, but she always returned to school.
The Clemson princess, her Duke University neurologist called her, the girl forever outfitted in Tiger regalia.
Martin was scheduled to see that doctor Tuesday, had fussed to her parents that she had to be back in time for her German final on Wednesday. German-born herself to parents who grew up in East Germany, she was fluent in the language.
Steffen Martin arrived at his daughter’s Young Hall dorm room Sunday evening and learned from a roommate that she’d had a headache and was sleeping.
He tried to rouse her, and soon he called his wife. Their daughter, he said, wasn’t responding, wasn’t breathing.
Stefanie never woke, complications from a tumor that doctors told the Martins was large and in the center of the brain. Physicians did not suspect she was a terminal patient. A surgery to remove the tumor could wait until semester’s end, they told the family. For a time, Stefanie insisted it wait until summer before finally relenting.
“I don’t feel bad that she was at Clemson. She loved it there,” Jana Martin said. “As parents, we would have loved to have her home to shelter her. She would not have been happy here being sick – with us treating her like a sick person.”
Martin was a 2014 graduate of a high school magnet program for math and science, and she soaked up travel to cities like Chicago and Paris and area hiking trails with her parents and brother Sebastian, 17.
At Clemson, the Martins said, Stefanie dropped some classes as her recall lulled and exhaustion set in, but their daughter viewed the campus as a second home, a sentiment echoed by students and faculty.
“She loved Clemson, she loved being here, she loved being around her peers, and she was looking forward to coming back next semester,” said Joe Mazer, an assistant professor and associate chair of Clemson’s Department of Communication Studies.
“We remember her as a very, very strong person who was just a joy to be around,” Mazer said.