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Lourdes Nursing Student’s Dream Remembered through Scholarship

Gail Hairston set out to be a nurse, but instead became a patient. She became a patient who learned first-hand the care and compassion that nurses provide.

Gail’s 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 long, 20-year career.

But her desire to be a nurse didn’t fade. If anything, it grew stronger.

“My mom was in her late 40s, taking care of my grandmother, and then she got laid-off,” says her daughter, Jenell Breitenbach. “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.”

At age 51, Gail researched nursing schools and the requirements to attend. She started taking prerequisite classes at Burlington County College. She continued working full-time in furniture sales.

After completing the prerequisite classes in 2006, Gail applied to Our Lady of Lourdes School of Nursing and was accepted. She was then working full-time and going to nursing school full-time.

“This was a second career for my mom,” says Jenell. “It was also her dream.”

Gail had completed a year and a half (three semesters) of nursing school when she was initially 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,” says Jenell.

But a year after being diagnosed, Gail started feeling pain near her shoulder. Thinking it was a gym injury, she eventually went to see her physician upon Jenell’s urging.

The pain was actually caused by breast cancer which had metastasized, or spread to nearby tissue.

Gail started treatment while continuing her schooling. She underwent radiation for several weeks, followed by monthly hormonal and bone strengthening treatments. As the disease progressed Gail eventually had to have chemotherapy several times per month.

“Unfortunately, things got worse,” says Jenell. “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.”

Gail’s health continued to decline. In September 2010, she was taken by ambulance to a South Jersey hospital, where doctors told her and Jenell there was nothing more that could be done. They recommended hospice care so that Gail could be made comfortable.

“I told the nurses taking care of my mom about her dream of becoming a nurse and how she was so close to graduating,” says Jenell. “It was very painful for me to accept that she came so close and would not see her dream fulfilled.”

What the nurses did next meant the world to Gail and Jenell.

“One of the nurses contacted Our Lady of Lourdes School of Nursing,” says Jenell. “A day later, Deans Lisa Easterby and Anne McGinley came to my mother’s room and held an impromptu ceremony for her, with all the nurses from my mom’s floor participating.”

“We gave Gail a black graduation gown to wear, and had Pomp and Circumstance playing as we gave her an honorary degree,” says Dean Easterby. “We also presented Gail with her nursing pin, which was pre-ordered months before graduation. It was a very touching ceremony.”

Gail was placed on hospice care and passed away three weeks later at age 58.

“My mom worked so hard to become a nurse and she never got the chance to enjoy her nursing career,” says Jenell.

“Gail was a beautiful and caring person,” says Dean Easterby. “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.”

Jenell, Gail’s only child, decided to provide a nursing scholarship in her mother’s 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.”

The $1,000 scholarship will be given annually to a student age 35 or older who is also a single parent.

Dean Easterby says she was so happy to hear Jenell honored her mom with a scholarship. “This scholarship honors the spirit of nursing, which Gail embodied.”

Says Jenell, “Nurses serve patients. They help people when they are at their most vulnerable. I see this scholarship as my mom helping students become nurses who, in turn, will help others. It’s my way of ensuring that her dream of becoming a nurse is fulfilled.”

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