A nurse for 13 years, there was nothing unusual about the day shift on Sept. 21, 2010 when Crystal Broadnax Hunter went to help a stroke patient put on a shirt that was tangled around his neck.
Nothing unusual, that is, until the patient, a large, heavy man, stood and unexpectedly put his entire weight on her.
“He was tall and big. He grabbed me, stood up and leaned on me,” she said. “It happened so fast.”
That simple act of helping a patient adjust his shirt ruptured two discs in her spine. The injury upended Hunter’s life in a flash, sending the mother of three into a spiral of surgeries, pain and a half decade of recovery.
“My life changed in the blink of an eye,” she said.
In her nursing career, Hunter had taught medical assistants, worked in surgery, pediatrics and geriatrics. It all ended that day.
She spent a few months on light duty and desk work, but has been out of a job since July 2011.
“It’s been rough. I’ve had three surgeries and countless procedures. As far as my nursing career, they told me it was pretty much over,” Hunter said. “That was hard to take. I worked so hard to get to where I was.”
She was two classes shy of an associate’s degree but had withdrawn from the school and finished those at NEC before moving straight into the bachelor’s program. Hunter completed her BS in Healthcare Administration by taking classes online, the only way she could manage. She couldn’t sit at a desk. She still can’t sit up for long in bed.
She kept a sticker affixed to the laptop she used for the courses. It said: “I can. I will.”
“That’s my motto,” she said.
Her motto could also include resilience and resolve.
“I went through my initial grieving phase for myself, then wiped away my tears,” she said. “I decided I might as well be doing something constructive. I was not just going to be on disability. I would just die. Me sitting around on disability, that would kill me.”
Not Easy Before
Things had not been simple for Hunter, even before that patient crushed the discs of her spine. She is a single mother raising three children, one with special needs. Her two daughters were pre-teens at the time she was injured. Her son was 13. Now, all are in their teens.
Hunter had already started classes for an associate’s degree in healthcare administration before the injury.
“I was always interested in the administrative area of health. I just never had the time. The injury was a double-edged sword in a way,” she said. It ended her nursing career but gave her the chance to get a degree.
But with surgeries and recovery periods lasting months, even taking online courses proved physically taxing. It was months after her last surgery before should could even sit in an armchair. She did most of her coursework from bed.
“I’ve been doing it in bed. I have about a thousand pillows. Sometimes I can’t type being propped up. I have to lean over on my side. It takes me a lot longer,” Hunter said.
“My children and boyfriend have been very supportive. “I tell my children they don’t have to be the smartest kid in school, they just have to be the hardest worker. How can I tell them that and not do it myself?”
Perhaps some of the grit Hunter showed overcoming her injury can be traced to her mother, Cheryl Broadnax Abbasi, and biggest supporter after the first two surgeries.
Abbasi came to Delaware to help her daughter but suffered a massive stroke herself just before Christmas. The prognosis was grim.
“They said she’d never walk again, that she would need continuous speech therapy, and possibly around-the-clock care,” Hunter said.
“Well, she walked out of that hospital on her own two feet, happy, talking,” Hunter said. Her mother not only overcame the prediction of doctors, she was able to continue her work as a minister at her church in Alabama.
“Watching my mother overcome so many illnesses in order to push forward and to continue in her journey so selflessly gave me that much-needed hope necessary to overcome my own grief over the loss of my career and life as I knew it,” Hunter said.
In addition to support from her family, Hunter said help from her student services representatives from University Alliance guided her through the program and courses.
“They were awesome, just amazing. They were down-to-earth but highly professional,” she said.
With her degree, Hunter will take away knowledge and understanding of the administrative aspect of healthcare.
“I was totally clueless about business and leadership. Now I can look at a budget and see it from 360 degrees. That kind of knowledge is priceless. What I appreciate about the professors was they weren’t just about theory. They were about application. It caused you to look deeper than what you’d learn from a book,” she said.
Doctors have not released Hunter to return to work, but her degree could give her a number of possibilities when that happens.
“I have so many opportunities open. I can work in business because I have courses in business and know healthcare. I can go on and get my master’s. There are so many more options,” she said.
She has no intention of letting what happened that September day in 2010 stop her.
“You have to push past the circumstances. You have to keep your eye straight on what you do. You have to get back up and keep moving forward. It pays off, believe me.”