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