Gail Hairston set out to be a nurse, but instead became a patient. She pursued her dream at age 51 by enrolling in Our Lady of Lourdes School of Nursing in Camden, N.J., but had to withdraw seven weeks shy of finishing the program.
She died at age 58, the recipient of an honorary diploma. In her honor, her daughter, Jenell Breitenbach, has established a scholarship at the school.
Hairstons desire to become a nurse started when she was in high school.
However, after marrying and starting a family, she found herself in the advertising field, where she had a 20-year career.
My mom was in her late 40s, taking care of my grandmother, and then she got laid off, Breitenbach said in a news release. She started selling furniture, and after my grandmother passed away, my mom made up her mind that she wanted to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse.
According to the release, at age 51, Hairston researched nursing schools and the requirements to attend. After completing the prerequisite classes in 2006, Hairston applied to Our Lady of Lourdes School of Nursing and was accepted.
This was a second career for my mom, Breitenbach said. It was also her dream.
Hairston had completed a year and a half (three semesters) of nursing school when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She took a semester off from school, during which time she had a mastectomy and underwent chemotherapy.
When my mom started back at school again, we thought she was cured, Breitenbach said.
But a year after being diagnosed, Hairston started feeling pain near her shoulder.
Thinking it was a gym injury, she eventually went to see her physician upon Breitenbachs urging. The pain was caused by breast cancer, which had metastasized. Hairston started treatment while continuing her schooling.
Unfortunately, things got worse, Breitenbach said. She was completing her clinical rotation and, with seven weeks to go before graduation, she had to withdraw from the nursing program. She was in too much pain and too ill to continue.
Hairstons health continued to decline. In September 2010, she was taken by ambulance to a South Jersey hospital, where doctors told her and Breitenbach there was nothing more that could be done.
They recommended hospice care so that Hairston could be more comfortable.
One of the nurses contacted Our Lady of Lourdes School of Nursing, Breitenbach said. A day later, deans Lisa Easterby and Anne McGinley came to my mothers room and held an impromptu ceremony for her, with all the nurses from my moms floor participating.
We gave Gail a black graduation gown to wear and had Pomp and Circumstance playing as we gave her an honorary degree, Easterby, RN, DNP, CNE, said in the release. We also presented Gail with her nursing pin, which was pre-ordered months before graduation. It was a very touching ceremony.
Hairston died three weeks later at age 58.
Gail was a beautiful and caring person, Easterby said. She struggled with cancer twice. It was heart-wrenching to lose her because she would have made such a wonderful nurse. Everyone enjoyed working with her.
Breitenbach decided to provide a nursing scholarship in her mothers name.
I thought a scholarship would be a great way to honor my mom, all of her hard work, and all the nurses who cared for her when she was sick, she said.
The $1,000 scholarship will be given annually to a student age 35 or older who also is a single parent.
Easterby said she was so happy to hear Breitenbach honored her mom with a scholarship.
This scholarship honors the spirit of nursing, which Gail embodied, Easterby said.