Life experiences lead former patients, family members to serve others at UMMC
By Gary Pettus
Anna Odom was going to save animals for a living, until nurses and doctors tried to save her child.
Brandy Smith was torn about a career choice, until she lost part of her arm.
Alicon Johnson thought she knew her own heart, until cardiology healed her son’s.
Dr. Anna Marie Hailey-Sharp considered fighting crime, until cancer attacked her father.
As a patient or a patient’s relative, each faced the prospect of loss – but in the process, found her calling.
The Pediatric Nurse: Part One
Odom told her story while seated in a room furnished with a pool table, dartboard, video game console and other things her son might have enjoyed by now.
The room is a retreat for young patients on the unit where she works at Batson Children’s Hospital, the place where she brought her son on the last days of his life.
Until then, she was going to be a veterinarian. Caring for animals was her “passion,” she said.
She was married and taking night classes and living in Brandon at the time. When she became pregnant, she continued her studies.
In January 2005, James was born. On Sept. 12, 2005, she lost him.
Soon afterward, she also lost her husband – to prison.
The Occupational Therapist
In the summer before her senior year of college, Smith was riding on the side of a boat after a day of wakeboarding with her friends.
When the boat swerved to conquer a bend in the Pearl River, she tumbled into the water, snared by a boarding rope; it snaked around her arm and squeezed it in two.
“The boat circled around trying to get to me,” she said. “The rope tightened and severed my arm.”
She lost her right forearm, and with it her ability as a right-hander to feed and dress herself and dry her hair the only way she
“There were 20-year-old-girl things I wanted to do,” she said, “and I couldn’t do them anymore.”
At the time, she was an athletic trainer at Mississippi College in Clinton. Her decision about a permanent career was stuck in limbo between physical therapy and occupational therapy.
But not after her accident.
“At the time, physical therapy was more about strength and endurance and walking around,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily need to get stronger.
“I wanted the basics back.”
Occupational therapy gave them to her. It also gave her a desire to help people who could no longer take for granted the daily rhythms and rituals of life and who would, perhaps more than anyone else, miss them once they were gone. People whose long, dynamic lives were suddenly wrecked by strokes, hip fractures, Parkinson’s disease, and, in some cases, the loss of limbs.
At the Mississippi State Veterans’ Home in Jackson, she found about 150 of them.
“I believed I could learn from them as much as they could gain from me,” she said.
Now, 12 years after her accident, she’s program director of the home’s rehab department and a UMMC-trained OT with her own caseload: 70- and 80-year-old men who, once they notice her missing forearm, see more than a 32-year-old woman.
They see themselves.
The Pediatric Nurse: Part Two
Odom was helping her parents deliver firewood to neighbors when she got the call.
“’James is hurt.’”
Before she left him with her husband, she had fed him and put him on the floor to play. But when she rushed back home, she found James with a knot ballooning on the side of his head.
Apparently, he had fallen off the bed. He was screaming. “When I picked him up, he stopped,” she said. “That was the last time I heard him cry.”
James was treated in the ER of a local hospital for what was diagnosed as a hairline fracture. But, at the urging of a paramedic, his mother took him to Batson.
As doctors examined James, his parents remained in the waiting room. Finally, they got the word: James had suffered cardiac arrest. He had coded four times, Odom said.
“He never woke up again.”
The Nurse Practitioner
When Johnson’s son Tanner was treated successfully for a heart defect seven years ago, it changed her heart, too.
She was working then as director of nursing in behavioral health, but the staff of Batson’s pediatric ICU derailed that career.
“They took such good care of my child for so long, I thought it would be a wonderful place to work,” Johnson said.
When Tanner was only 6 months old, Johnson joined the PICU. But it wasn’t enough.
“Taking care of babies with heart defects became very close to me,” she said.
A couple of years later, she went back to school to earn her nurse practitioner’s degree, hoping to parlay that into a job with the congenital heart care team.
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do with my life,” she said.
She is now a nurse practitioner working in pediatric cardiothoracic surgery, “giving back what had been given to me,” she said.
When she meets with distraught parents at Batson, she doesn’t always tell them that she used to be one of them. “Unless I believe it might make things better,” she said.
Often, it does.
The Pediatric Nurse: Part Three
Odom’s son was in her arms that day.
She was able to be with him only after the intervention of Dr. Rick Boyte, James’ physician at Batson.
Law enforcement officers had tried to stop her – she and her husband were suspects.
“Dr. Boyte fought for me,” Odom said.
So, on the day James was removed from the ventilator, his mother held him as she sat in a rocker the staff had brought her.
“The nurses were so sweet,” she said. “They answered all our questions.”
Boyte sat with her. He told her that the vent would be turned off and James’ heart would stop.
After a few minutes, it did.
As it turned out, the investigators’ suspicions were half right. James’ father, now Odom’s ex-husband, is serving time in an area correctional facility. James died of shaken baby syndrome.
“On the day he died,” Odom said, “I decided I wanted to be like those nurses, because of what they had done for me as a mom.”
If she had not taken her son to Batson, she said, “I wouldn’t be a nurse today.”
When Hailey-Sharp sees patients with a history of the disease, she can’t help but think of her father. She also remembers his doctor, the one back home in Kemper County – a physician, she said, “who was as concerned about your health as you were.
“My father trusted him.”
In DeKalb, Billy Hailey depended on Dr. Jim Smith – “Dr. Jim” – for two things: his primary care and his peace of mind.
When he found out he had prostate cancer, his dependence only grew.
Only 19 at the time, Hailey-Sharp had at least a toe on the path to a career in forensic chemistry, possibly as a crime lab investigator. But medicine, which had been at the back of her mind, suddenly leaped to the front and wouldn’t leave.
“It was a combination of things my family had been through – my father and grandparents,” she said. “My father has had a long journey with specialists, but it all started with the family doctor.”
Hailey-Sharp is married now and in her second year of residency in family medicine at UMMC. When she finishes here, she and her husband, Jason Sharp, plan to move to DeKalb, where she will try to fill the void left by the passing of Dr. Jim.
The Pediatric Nurse: Last Chapter
July 14 marked Odom’s fourth anniversary on the pediatric unit.
About three-and-a-half years ago, she remarried. Her daughter, Peyton Elizabeth, turns 2 on Oct. 19.
One night in February, she left work late, driving home alone in the rain. She was nine months pregnant.
Her car hydroplaned and was struck by another vehicle. She was hospitalized.
The next morning, she gave birth to Cooper, who turns 8 months old this month – the same age as his brother.