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Walden Magazine // Jan 01, 2012

Lifelong Learners: Paying It Forward

Cynthia J. Hickman ’09, a career nurse, hopes to improve lives in her community by mentoring aspiring nurses and opening clinics that offer preventive care and patient education.

Cynthia Hickman

On a normal day, it took the manager at the Roosevelt pool in Toledo, Ohio, just 15 minutes to check the chlorine levels. So when he hadn’t emerged from the chemical room after more than half an hour, Cynthia J. Hickman knew something wasn’t right. The then 16-year-old lifeguard found the manager on the floor, semiconscious. He had inhaled too much chlorine. His heart was beating, but his breathing was shallow.

“According to the medical staff at the hospital, had I not found him when I did, he would not have survived,” she says. “The experience changed my life forever. I knew at that moment that helping others was my calling in life.”

She has since turned that calling into a 25-year career as a nurse at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. Hickman, a 2009 Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) graduate, is now pursuing a PhD in Health Services at Walden to expand her knowledge and better share it with aspiring nurses and the patients who desperately need to know more about preventing illnesses and reducing their visits to hospitals.

Her goal is to open a series of nonprofit preventive health centers in Texas that would offer not only patient care but also education on nutrition and exercise, prevention, medical conditions, and the treatment and services that are available outside an emergency room.

“I’d love to see health services available in communities where people can access them easily. I also want to encourage nurses to work in these clinics to continue to reduce how often these at-risk patients land in the hospital,” she says. “My goal for these health centers is to emphasize health and prevention through patient education.”

Hickman’s passion for preventive care isn’t just professional; it’s personal. She cares for her 91-year-old mother, a woman who has suffered from heart failure for 15 years and taught Hickman and her three sisters—a community health physician, a teacher, and a nurse—the importance of helping others.

“I have managed my mother’s healthcare needs in the home with the assistance of her physician. With proper education and access, this system can work for others,” she says. “So the question became, ‘What impact can I make to address this widespread need?’ The answer is to prepare myself by pursuing a PhD at Walden, something I can do while caring for my mother.”

Hickman says she couldn’t meet the demands of her doctoral coursework without the support of her family.

“Especially my husband, Bernis,” she says. “He always has dinner ready for me when I get home and helps me look after my mother. He even drives me to work, so I can study for an additional 30 minutes each way. ”

Her studies at Walden have given her new skills. “Walden taught me to be a leader while I studied for my MSN. I’ll use what I learned in that program combined with my doctoral studies and my nursing knowledge to make social changes in communities where individuals suffer and are at risk.”

Hickman also is focused on educating the next generation of nurses. In 2006, after she received the $50,000 Johnson & Johnson Community Health Care Leadership Award for assisting displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina in her home community of Missouri City, Texas, she created the Cynthia J. Hickman “Pay it Forward” Nursing Scholarship.

“There were not enough nurses, not enough hands to help the sea of people that needed assistance,” she says.

To date she has awarded $1,000 scholarships to nine nursing students, and seven have graduated. One is in a PhD program.

“My passion has a purpose,” she says. “I have made a commitment to leave the world better than I found it by addressing the needs of my community with drive, determination, and compassion.”

Tell us why you’ve returned to Walden for another degree at [email protected]