Then a 39-year-old Hilliard mother with two small children, Kara McGee had to make a plan on how she would provide for Avery, now 8, and Dylan, now 6, going forward. Spousal benefits wouldn’t last forever, and her heart, she said, just wasn’t in teaching anymore.
So after the heavy fog of the tragedy began to lift six months later, her thoughts turned to the nurses who helped her family in its darkest hour.
“Maybe that’s what I could do, maybe that’s my purpose now,” McGee, 40, said.
Kara McGee was a Columbus City Schools teacher raising her two children with her husband, Brad, until he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died at the age of 40. Now, as a single mom, she decided to make a career change and begin studying to become an oncology nurse to serve families just like her own. (Fred Squillante/Columbus Dispatch/TNS)
As National Nurses Week came to a close — the celebration always ends on the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing — McGee begins the second semester of the accelerated nursing program at Xavier University’s Columbus site. (She’s scheduled to graduate next spring.)
McGee’s dream is to become an oncology nurse. And although it’s been challenging to go back to college in such a demanding field while being a single parent still reeling a bit from the death of her husband, she’s absolutely convinced that she’s made the right move.
“I had a lot of hesitancy early on, starting a new and different career at 40 years old,” McGee said. “But once I started my first clinical, I haven’t felt — in college or in my career — this at peace with a decision.”
During her first clinical rotation in a long-term rehabilitation facility, she found herself more outspoken and motivated than she’d ever been in her life.
Brad, she said, was always the talkative one — someone who never met a stranger, who didn’t have any enemies and who spoke up when others were hurting. She admits she’s more of an introvert.
“I told myself I have to put myself out there … If there’s a procedure to try, I have to be the one to volunteer,” said McGee, adding that interacting with patients felt natural right away.
Still, her decision to pursue nursing, especially so soon after losing her husband and during a pandemic, surprised some family and friends in the beginning.
“Initially, I was like, ‘Seriously, you want to do this? It sounds challenging,’” said Barbara Adams, McGee’s mother.
Adams lives in Florida and was unable to travel much to help McGee last year due to the pandemic. However, she quickly realized how dedicated her daughter was to the pursuit.
“I do think she’ll make a great nurse,” Adams said. “She has compassion and being through what she’s experienced has given her perspective.”
She’s impressed with McGee’s ability to put so much work into the rigorous accelerated program — basically, it’s four years of school completed in 16 months — while managing a household. But Adams said her daughter has created a great support network in central Ohio and isn’t afraid to lean on it for help.
“Still, she’s kind of amazing,” Adams said.
Angela Phillips, assistant director of Xavier’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, said McGee hasn’t missed a step despite the pandemic or her circumstances.
“I’m honored she chose our program,” said Phillips, adding that McGee brings a very positive energy to her studies. “She’s taken something so tragic and turned it into something good.”
Close friend Melanie Palsgrove said she knows McGee will make a good nurse because she credits her friend with saving her life.
When Palsgrove’s husband died suddenly in 2019, she received a note and a book from a woman she didn’t know at the time — McGee, whose daughter takes gymnastics lessons at the gym where Palsgrove coaches. McGee felt compelled to reach out to the new widow.
“It moved me so much that a stranger would do this,” said Palsgrove, also of Hilliard. “She used her loss and experience to help me. If it wouldn’t have been for her, I’m not sure I’d be alive. I had no will to live.”
The two women began going to lunches together, and Palsgrove said McGee let her cry and laugh – whatever she needed. During the very lonely pandemic, the two often visited each other’s houses for a quiet place to study or to play with McGee’s children.
Palsgrove said it’s not difficult for her to see why McGee wants a new career in nursing.
“When you lose your person, it changes you forever,” Palsgrove said. “It makes you look at life in a whole other realm.”
Brad McGee was certainly Kara’s person.
The couple met in 2000 while studying at Ohio State University, and they began dating three years later. They married in 2006 and welcomed Avery, and then, Dylan after battling infertility together.
“He was such a good dad,” Kara McGee said. “He’d play with the kids and get down on the floor with them. He’d take them to the park, take them fishing.”
McGee said she’s not sure what her husband would think of her as a nurse, besides being 100 percent supportive of her decision.
Her mother was more confident in what her son-in-law would say.
“He’d be over the moon,” Adams said.
Adams said she knows her grandchildren are pretty excited at what their mom is trying to do, too, since they talk about it all the time.
Through all the pain McGee has endured losing Brad, she is certain those feelings and experiences will make her a better nurse to patients with cancer or other serious illnesses.
“I truly do know what they’re going through,” McGee said. “It will help me provide very patient-centered care. I’m not there to unload my story, and I might not even go there ... but I might know what they need even if they can’t verbalize it.”
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