Heart Disease is the No. 1 killer of women, in the United States, claiming more lives than all cancers combined. Join the American Heart Associate (AHA) on February 7, 2014 to celebrate National Wear Red Day to raise awareness in the fight against heart disease in women. – goredforwomen.org
Two women — Mary Witherspoon and Nicole Sample are working to change the heart health of women everywhere and share their individual stories.
You enrolled in a nursing program at Chicago University after the tragic death of your son 12 years ago. How did you persevere and what attributed to giving you the strength to do so?
When my son died I felt lost, alone and empty. Although I had a beautiful daughter, Alisia age 14, it was such a struggle for me to even get out of bed. I had been taking care of Lionel for 18 years and I did not know what to do now. The pain was tremendous. My daughter Alisia was seemly so strong and so helpful to me. She was encouraging that she gave me the strength to go on. One day I was trying to decide what to do and making plans to begin looking for employment. I remembered waking up from a nap and the pain was too much to bear. I began crying and praying asking God to help me. I had never had the desire to be a nurse and would have never pursued a career in nursing. That day God put it in me– in my spirit to be a nurse. Many times when God calls we do not recognize it to be from God or acknowledge it. I knew that it was God because I was calling on Him to help me. I knew at that moment that I was not about to go to nursing school and I did not want to be a nurse.
I have a deep respect and admiration for nurses. During my son’s illness and stay in the hospital, they were there for my family and helped through so many difficult times. The nursing and hospital staff in general took such good care of us; they made us feel like we were not alone and they offered so much personal support.
Being a nurse was on my mind and in my heart all day every day. Even though I knew that I did not want to do it, but I knew that I had to. The next year I spent my time in unsuccessful part-time jobs knowing that I was going to have to do better. I was in a program trying to perfect my computer skills and one day the director of the program asked me what I wanted to do, and I said that I wanted to be a nurse. He explained to me that this program could not help me with that however, he knew someone in the nursing program at Malcolm X College and that he would take me there to talk to her. When I arrived the person was not there and I did not keep my return appointment. One day I just called Chicago State (CSU) and made an appointment with Mrs. Dorcus Williams. I have a BS in Biology and classes from my degree were some of the required courses for the nursing program. I was admitted into the program in spring of 2002. It was very difficult for me emotionally. My daughter would help me prepare for my exams and I did well academically. There were times when my professors would ask me if I was alright and one day I talked to them about my son’s death. They were so tremendously supportive and encouraging; the nursing professors at CSU worked with me and helped me to obtain numerous academic scholarships. They were always available when I needed them.
I remember Dr. Linda Hurston, Chair of Nursing at the time, telling me that she knew that it was hard but she was not going to let me quit. One day she told me to wait in her office and she walked across campus to buy me a Maternal Nurse book. The Nursing Department at CSU held me up and would not let me fall. I was in work study programs for the College of Health Science with Dean Balogun’s office, which provided me the opportunity to have some financial support; a tremendous help.
My children and I are members of the Carter Temple CME Church in Chicago. They prayed for me, encouraged me, and were there for me during my son’s illness and death. When I started nursing school they were supportive and encouraging as well. They helped me with Alisia and stood with me through it all. I wanted to quit so many times but with the support and encouragement from CSU and the church I was able to be successful. Through all of this I learned how to trust God and know that He was all that I thought Him to be and more than I ever understood.
Why did you decide to focus on the clinical portion of the program?
That was the way the program was set up. We all had to do clinical. I remember my first patient in my clinical program, she had a lot of medical problems and was not able to provide any care for herself. Her eyes were bright and clear, she could not communicate and it was difficult for me. It was not about me anymore, it was about helping someone else– like others had helped me. Although I was still deeply saddened about Lionel’s death, it was helpful to me to focus on the quality of care that he had. I want to provide that kind of care to others.
In your nursing work you have witnessed your patients suffer financial problems, family issues, loneliness and general lack of information about following a healthy lifestyle. How do you hope to help combat this problem?
There were times when I felt helpless. I would not have access to the particular resources that they needed. There were times when I was not in a position to help in any meaningful way. Over the years I have been involved in volunteer services for the community with the American Heart Association (AHA), ARC, American Diabetes Association (ADA), Gift of Hope, (ROBI) organ donation, and the church. I got involved to help others.
During my son’s illness and while I was in nursing school, I received a lot of support and information that was a tremendous help to me, and in my nursing career I have realized that there are a lot of people who are going through some horrifying and difficult times with their health, children, and finances; they cannot seem to see their way out. I do not have the answers but I know there are answers and that there are solutions. We have to work together in love and help whenever and where ever we can. I know that alone I would have never gotten through school and been able to help my daughter graduate from college or anything else. One of the things that I plan to do following school in 2015, is to become more involved with community organization in the areas of health and wellness care. I plan to be open to opportunities to serve and provide care. The volunteer organizations that I have worked with have been most helpful to me in services to the community.
You are currently pursuing a Master’s of Science in Nursing with an emphasis on community health at Chicago State. Why is education so important to you in particular, heart health?
In a strange way it keeps me close to Lionel. Although we had great medical care, love, support and encouragement from some great people, it was still hard and difficult at times. I would not say to anyone that I know how they feel, but I would say that I know that with help you can get through this and I am willing to help. I know that Lionel won his battle with heart disease on June 17, 2000 and that he is resting eternally in heaven. I know that I still have work to do to help others win their battle. I know that I can do that through educating them about preventive measures, awareness, locating needed resources, and even providing comfort to a mother or family member.
How has the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association helped you with maintaining your health?
I have volunteered with both AHA & ADA. I have used both as resources with the Abundant Life Health Ministry at my Church. I am currently Health Ministry Leader. I have been successful in losing weight by following some of the AHA &ADA guidelines that refer to diet and exercise. I have cookbooks from both organizations and actually use them to prepare meals that are healthy and tasty. I truly want people to be healthy and I make an honest effort to maintain my health.
Why do you feel that you are the best candidate for the Go Red Multicultural Scholarship Fund?
I was awarded the Go Red Multicultural Scholarship the 2013-2014 year. One of my professors, Dr. Jochebed Ade-Oshifogunlti sent me the link. I knew of the scholarship but had never applied. I completed the application and all paperwork. I felt that I was qualified because I had a 4.00 GPA; however, I knew that there were only 16 scholarships and that it was national, so there would be a lot of qualified applicants. I also had met the volunteer criteria and my professor and the American Red Cross both wrote strong recommendations for me; still, I knew that there would be many who were qualified. When I received the call I was so grateful; I did not say anything about it to anyone right away, it was so wonderful and a tremendous help.
“I want to be a doctor,” was said in your childhood. You took action and entered the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education– a seven-year B.S. /M.D. program for minority students and New York residents. What was that experience like?
Speaking frankly, everything happened quite quickly. I knew that Sophie Davis offered the best total package for me, as I would be afforded a major tuition break and access to some of the top medical schools on the east coast. As a freshman entering the Sophie Davis program, I just knew I needed to work hard to get where I wanted to be which was ultimately NYU School of Medicine. It was a bit intimidating being placed in such advanced classes directly out of high school but I like to believe that I’m a very tough cookie. My colleagues and I would stay up all night having study parties and reviewing study material over and over; it was undoubtedly a great time. As I moved along in the program; however, many of my colleagues and even close friends left the program for various reasons, but with the support of family and friends I was able to stick it out through the most intellectually and personally challenging times of my life.
You are currently enrolled at New York University School of Medicine and in addition, you also are working on a research project involving African-Americans and hypertension. You volunteer on Saturdays at the New York City Free Clinic for students. When you become a doctor what do you hope to bring to the world of medicine?
A bit has changed since my Go Red for Women Application. I am currently a dual degree MD/MPH student at NYU School of Medicine and NYU Graduate School of Public Health. I am currently in my last semester of my MPH and in my 4th year of medical school. I hope to resume my NYC Free Clinic Volunteer work this summer. Additionally, I am in the beginning stages of a new collaborative research project with the OBGYN departments at NYU and Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Ghana looking at maternal mortality. As a future MD/MPH, I plan to work as an OBGYN and effect change at the population level. There are many women’s health issues that are inadequately addressed whether it be medically, socially or politically. I would like to shed light on these issues and work to improve the health of women especially in underserved communities.
How has the American Heart Association helped you in maintaining your heart health?
The American Heart Association is a well-known organization with a distinct message. I personally believe that making good health decisions begins first with knowledge and education. The AHA is great at getting those educational materials to those that are in need whether it be online or actually going into the community and delivering the message. Personally, the AHA speaks to me in that the organization reminds women that their health is essential and of grave importance. In this day and age women are caretakers and work full-time and often our health can be placed on the back burner. AHA has put forth that constant reminder that maintaining our heart health should be as important as our other roles as women.
Why do you feel that you are the best candidate for the Go Red Multicultural Scholarship Fund?
I believe that I was a great candidate for the Go Red Multicultural Scholarship Fund because the path to my current success was not an easy one. There were many times when my dream felt far away and out of reach. There were many times when I was the only female or the only minority in a classroom or on a medical team. I think that this scholarship allows me to tell my story for all of those young women of color who have faced this type of adversity and serve as an inspiration to them. Young women of color must always keep their dreams in sight and remember to exude the confidence and intelligence that you know you have despite what others may believe. It is a tough road but myself and the other Go Red Multicultural Scholarship Recipients have shown and proved that it can be done!
For more information on the Go Red Multicultural Scholarship Fund visit the official website: