Valdosta nurse turned hard knocks into caring spirit

Meet FNP Zakiyyah Weatherspoon

After earning her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing in 2005 from Georgia Southern University, Zakiyyah Weatherspoon was determined to go on to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist. But between what she knew would be strenuous demands of CRNA education, trying to start a family and life being a mom, Weatherspoon had to rethink. She never met her goal. And she is so glad.

Today, Weatherspoon is a board-certified family nurse practitioner who doesn't regret her slight career swerve. "Not one bit," she says. "I love talking, interacting with patients. If I was working with CRNA patients, they would be asleep."

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This year, that path allowed her to represent Georgia as the recipient of the 2019 American Association of Nurse Practitioners® Georgia State Award for Nurse Practitioner Excellence. The AANP is the legislative leader for some 248,000 licensed NPs in the U.S. and recognized Weatherspoon in part due to her work as events coordinator for the 110-strong South Georgia Association of Nurse Practitioners.

A few of the efforts she's organized include fundraisers to support homeless children and provide for local kids with cancer. She also stepped up to help gather supplies for 1,000 evacuees in two area shelters when Hurricane Irma ravaged the Valdosta area in September 2017 and continues to serve her community as a member of the Valdosta Lowndes Metropolitan Section of National Council of Negro Women.

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Her career choices have always involved that same sort of intensity. Born in Valdosta, she graduated from Valdosta High School in 2001, and after graduating from GSU, she worked as an ER nurse for six years while also pursuing the Master of Science in nursing, finishing in 2011. She simultaneously took on part-time duties at a nonprofit inpatient hospice facility and was a volunteer sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE nurse).

Her current combination includes being a volunteer at the Haven Shelter for battered women, her SGANP duties and full-time work with Legacy Behavioral Health Services, along with some stints for South Georgia Medical's Youth Care. It may seem complicated and overly demanding to the outside observer. But her life is arranged just the way she wants it. "I never had doubts that this was the path I wanted to take," she says. "I will say a lack of respect for nursing is something that made me want to take my education further. I worked where doctors would literally think us nurses should get up and give them our seat if they came in the building (like we hadn't been running our legs off). I just thought, 'This is not what I wanted. I want to do more.'"

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How a career as a caring spirit starts

While some daughters feel only a light family influence over their career plans or even a parental demand that causes them to rebel, teen Zakiyyah's work goals were shaped entirely by a series of events she says "turned me into a caring spirit, which turned me to nursing."

Her mom was a housewife, and the stepfather who raised her was a mechanic who owned his own transmission shop. He was also a smoker, and one day the odds caught up with him. He developed severe COPD, and Weatherspoon and her mom and sister started caring for him. He was homebound, with an oxygen tank, and at times he still tried to work on transmissions from the garage; so they were right there with him. "We weren't even able to enjoy life," Weatherspoon says softly.

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Her mom went back to work, starting out as a nursing assistant. Weatherspoon and her sister soon took on jobs, too. Her stepfather died of cancer her senior year; her grandfather died of cancer shortly thereafter. "It was during that time that I decided what I wanted to do," she notes. "I'd always wanted to be a veterinarian. But caring for my stepfather, him on oxygen and unable to work, that sealed it. It changed me. I became a caring spirit."

It seems astonishing that one woman could do so much, take on so many roles, excel on so many fronts. Weatherspoon protests that she does still have time to take a trip at least once a year and get ample sleep, joking, "It wouldn't be pretty if I didn't. And I get to relax, I get to enjoy." She's forthcoming about another source of strength, her second husband, Arthur Weatherspoon III.

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"My husband is so supportive, it makes a world of difference," she says. "We have not only a marriage but a partnership." Drawing from both personal and professional experience, Weatherspoon has become a firm believer in forging a division of responsibility based on practicality. "I think one reason marriages fail is that people try to follow society's assigned roles for 'husband' and 'wife,'" she says. "If you try to stick only to those roles, you will fail."

At her house, the conversation is ongoing. "Before we do anything, we sit down and say, 'This is what we want to do. Is it feasible? How can we have it? How can we make it happen?'"

Her other superpower? Weatherspoon doesn't view her casework as stressful, quite the opposite. "Honestly, my patients are a pick-me-up," she says. As for the political and legal pressure she deals with at times in her organizational roles, she blocks that out and suggests other APRNs do the same. "If you let the legal-political aspect get to you, you won't love what you do," she says. "But if you block the other out, you can focus on the reason you made your career choice, and that's most important."

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For Weatherspoon, the draw will always be mental health, even as she segues into pursuing a Doctor of Nursing with a psychiatric-mental health cognate from Georgia Southern University. "I am on my second marriage and I know from going through a divorce with a 2-year-old, that's a tough setting," she says. "With all the cancers in my family, depression or grieving, I can relate. Anything to do with the personal or with family, I have always gravitated towards that."

Her ER work experience also opened her eyes to the needs of mental health patients. "The doctors didn't like seeing the mental health patients, didn't take much time with them. But I'm like, 'This is a disease. It needs to be treated the same as any other medical discipline.' When I was an NP in the ER I was just drawn to caring for those patients, and that's where I got a liking for it."

Along with her patients, Weatherspoon is an advocate for more autonomy for APRNs in the face of different state limitations. And these days, she's passionate about another project she is setting in motion: trying to get mental health in schools, an idea spawned by soaring teen suicide rates.

With a caring spirit that's been strong since she herself was a teen, she will do what she can to change that.