Five decades later, a dream of a med­i­cal ca­reer comes true

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - LOCAL PERSPECTIVES - Bill Lohmann wlohmann@Times­Dis­patch.com wlohmann@times­dis­patch.com (804) 649-6639

Grow­ing up, Carrie M. Dun­son used to sit on the floor at home and thumb through the World Book En­cy­clo­pe­dias. One day amid the pages, she came across an en­try about Florence Nightin­gale, the trail­blaz­ing 19th-cen­tury nurse whose work with the wounded dur­ing the Crimean War and ad­vo­cacy after­ward saved lives and led to mon­u­men­tal health care re­form.

“I was just so in­spired by her,” Dun­son said. “I wanted to be like her.”

How­ever, Dun­son’s youth­ful am­bi­tion to be­come a nurse got side­tracked and went on a long de­tour, which you might call “real life.”

She mar­ried and had her first child when she was 17, grad­u­ated from Ch­ester­field County’s Thomas Dale High in 1977, and then served in the Army for three years be­fore com­ing home to take a job as a mail han­dler at the U.S. Postal Ser­vice, where she worked for more than three decades. Along the way, she had four chil­dren, di­vorced and re­mar­ried.

She found the post office job re­ward­ing, but phys­i­cally de­mand­ing. Over time, it wore her down. She re­tired from the post office last year, but she did not want to stop work­ing en­tirely.

“I loved my job,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave, but I wanted to save some of me.”

Through it all, she never for­got that long-ago dream of work­ing in the med­i­cal field.

“Never,” she said.

So, she went back to school, and on Fri­day, at age 58, she will grad­u­ate from the med­i­cal as­sist­ing pro­gram at ECPI Univer­sity’s Rich­mond cam­pus.

“I’m happy … just to know that I have achieved this piece of my dream,” Dun­son said in an interview over cof­fee a few days ago.

Her fam­ily also is pretty thrilled — and proud.

“I re­ally think it’s awe­some,” said her old­est daugh­ter, Lakeisha Mitchell-Adams. “I knew since we were lit­tle that she wanted to be a nurse. It’s in her per­son­al­ity. She’s al­ways been lov­ing and car­ing for ev­ery­body.”

And de­ter­mined. “I re­mem­ber her telling me she would do her home­work with me on her lap and I’d be a re­ally good girl and didn’t give her a hard time,” Mitchel­lA­dams said of those days when she was a baby and her mom was a se­nior in high school.

An­other daugh­ter and two sons fol­lowed. Dun­son tried go­ing back to school sev­eral times over the years to pur­sue a nurs­ing ca­reer but, as she said, “life hap­pened,” and she never fin­ished. As the aches and pains from her postal job led her to con­sider re­tire­ment, she also saw that as an op­por­tu­nity to give the med­i­cal field one more shot — as a way not only to ac­com­plish a per­sonal ob­jec­tive but to in­spire her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.

Dun­son, who lives in Ch­ester­field, en­rolled in Jan­uary 2017 while she was still work­ing at the post office, which made for long days: she went to school at 8 a.m. un­til early after­noon, then went to her job, where she worked 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. She stud­ied for class on her breaks at work, did home­work once she got home in the wee hours of the morn­ing or took a nap and woke at 4 a.m. to do more school­work un­til class started it all over again the next morn­ing.

“I kind of wore my­self out, but I was de­ter­mined to get a 4.0,” she said, ac­knowl­edg­ing she was mildly dis­ap­pointed that she fin­ished with a grade­point av­er­age of 3.77.

It was not only her de­ter­mi­na­tion but her faith that she be­lieves saw her through, or, as she put it, “through the grace of God.”

Nonethe­less, so as not to let any­one down in case things didn’t work out, she at first kept her re­turn to school a se­cret from every­one ex­cept for hus­band, Tyra, who she said is “a master of keep­ing se­crets.” She had to keep mak­ing ex­cuses for miss­ing fam­ily events, but fi­nally after a few months she told her fam­ily — she has six chil­dren, 11 grand­chil­dren and a great-grand­child through her blended fam­i­lies — only that she had gone back to school.

She didn’t let on what she was study­ing un­til the party cel­e­brat­ing her re­tire­ment from the post office.

She’s gained ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing as a med­i­cal as­sis­tant in an ex­tern­ship and an­other job — med­i­cal as­sis­tants per­form ad­min­is­tra­tive and clin­i­cal tasks in doc­tors’ of­fices, hos­pi­tals and other health care fa­cil­i­ties — and she feels right at home.

“I loved it,” she said. “I just felt like I was in my el­e­ment, do­ing EKGs [elec­tro­car­dio­grams] and en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple and lis­ten­ing to their sto­ries while I was work­ing on them.”

Florence Nightin­gale, no doubt, would be pleased.

ALEXA WELCH ED­LUND/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

After work­ing for the Postal Ser­vice for more than 30 years, Carrie M. Dun­son de­cided to re­tire and study to be a med­i­cal as­sis­tant. She grad­u­ates Fri­day.

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