Journal-News Mothers Day Feature
PROLOGUE — This Mother’s Day, a Seven Mile nurse will have a very proud daughter and mother helping her celebrate a milestone.
After 37 years of constant setbacks, health concerns and general life frustrations, Terri Sweeney will graduate from Miami University’s Hamilton campus today, May 11, as a registered nurse.
When she was 19 years old, Sweeney was in an automobile accident that kept her in and out of surgery for the next 15 years — and still occasionally feeling the pain. Then 12 years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and endured chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.
“Most women would have given up a long time ago, but she kept going,” said her mother, Juanita Mayes. “For her to have become so strong is really good.”
“She’s my hero,” said Sweeney’s daughter Lisa Back. “I’ve always said when I was little that I wanted to be just like my mom.”
So even though Back doesn’t think she has the right stuff for nursing, she still pursued the medical field and works second shift registering emergency room patients at Mercy Hospital in Fairfield.
“Pretty much everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from my mom,” she said.
Mayes believes that her daughter’s story is an inspiring one and hopes that other women will heed the lessons she’s learned.
“She’s exceptionally brave and has always been encouraging to other women,” she said.
Terri Sweeney has always been a sensitive soul, even as a toddler.
“When she was a little girl riding around on her tricycle, she would fall, and with every little scratch, she screamed so loud every neighbor on the block would come running out,” said her mother, Juanita Mayes.
“If you sympathized with her, she’d never stop crying.”
But eventually, she learned not only to toughen up, but to use the pain she experienced to help others.
“Dogs, animals, anybody that had anything wrong, she would pick them up, bring them home and take care of them,” Mayes said.
When she was a teenager, she had what she called her “Marcus Welby bag,” named after the TV doctor.
“When somebody would get sick in the family or getting ready to have a baby, I’d put my overnight stuff in and spend some time with them, helping them get through whatever it was,” she said. “That’s when my light clicked on, when somebody needed help.
“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse. I felt it in my heart that I was a nurse.”
Life and its hardships got in the way, for a while. But today, May 11, Sweeney will finally achieve her registered nurse status at the age of 56 at a special graduation ceremony from Miami University’s Hamilton campus.
“She tried many times to get into nursing, but things would come up, and she’d have to drop her plans. It’s taken a lot of determination,” her mother said.
When she was 19 years old in 1971, she was a passenger in a car that struck a metal utility pole, just in front of where she was sitting.
“The engine was on my feet,” she said. “I was trapped.”
Her body was nearly shattered with a broken back, broken leg, broken foot and a broken jaw with several teeth missing.
They kept Sweeney in a Cincinnati hospital for more than 30 days because she couldn’t be moved.
For the next 15 years, the injuries, the subsequent surgeries, the pain and the pain killers all kept her from going to school, but the idea of becoming a nurse was always on her mind. Instead she worked at all kinds of jobs, from waitressing to driving a forklift in a warehouse. From time to time, she would make steps toward school, taking self-study courses or college prerequisites, but something always seemed to get in the way.
She married, had a daughter, got divorced and met Stan Sweeney, who worked for the Middletown Fire Department and whom she married in 1986 — hobbling to the ceremony on crutches because of surgery on her knee.
At the time, she said, she had been accepted at Bethesda
Hospital’s nursing school, but lost her financial aid and decided instead to focus on raising her daughter and stepdaughter.
Then in 1996, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and endured chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.
Two things came of the experience. Her back pain went away, which she attributes to an unusual side effect of the chemotherapy.
And it helped put her back on track to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.
“The whole time I was going through chemo, I thought there was something I was supposed to learn or do,” she said. “I felt like everything happens for a reason and that I should give it back.”
At age 46, she gained her licensed practical nurse designation from Butler Tech in 1998.
Part of the inspiration, she said, were some of the nurses who cared for her.
“It was a great help to me to have a nurse take care of me who had been through it herself,” Sweeney said. “They tell you that 90 percent of your recovery is your attitude. So when I saw how much that helped me, I figured I could help others, too.”
With her body still recovering from the cancer and the chemotherapy, she found work on an as-needed basis for the flexibility, but also found herself taking care of Stan, who had a stroke and triple-bypass open heart surgery.
As she gained her strength, she worked in hospitals and long-term care units, but realized that being an LPN was too limiting for her ambition, so in August 2006, she started taking the classes needed for the Miami University nursing program on the Hamilton campus, working two or three 12-hour shifts a week in Mount Airy while taking classes and frequently driving to Dayton for clinics.
“Even if she didn’t feel good, she still got up to go to work or class and only missed one class,” her mother said. “She hasn’t stopped for a minute these last two years.”
Sweeney said she feels like she can be a good nurse because of the experiences she’s had.
“I know what it feels like to be the patient, what it feels like to be laying there sick and waiting for somebody to come and do something,” she said. “ Somebody’s got to be there for people.”
Sweeney said she especially feels the calling when she is caring for women.
“I’ve taken care of a lot of women who were newly diagnosed with breast cancer and they’re thinking this is it, this is a death sentence or they’re going to be sick the rest of their life,” she said.
“When you tell them that you’ve been through it, their attitude does this big turn-around,” she said. And so at an age when her colleagues are finding a way out of the profession, she has other ideas.
Last week, she said one of her patients, a young man, expressed some shock when he found out she was graduating from college.
“You should be retiring,” he said.
She told him, “I’m just getting started.”