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Photo of student in white nursing coat in nursing simulation lab
Photo of student in white nursing coat in nursing simulation lab

Pam McCarthy started managing apartment complexes because it was a steady job that she was happy to find as a young mother.

After 10 years, though, McCarthy was ready for a change. She had reached as high in her company as she was going to get, so she started thinking again about becoming a nurse.

It had been a dream of hers since she was in middle school and saw the way nurses had cared for her grandmother after she had major surgery to repair her aorta.

But McCarthy was a mother of three in her late 20s. She wasn’t sure if she could afford to quit her job and start nursing school.

“It almost seemed kind of selfish, for a lack of a better term, to go back to school and spend the money and not have the steady source of income that I had at that time,” she said. “But then I realized that my children are watching me, and they can either see me be unhappy in a job that I don’t like or they can see me succeed and follow the thing that I always wanted to do.”

With her family’s support, McCarthy decided to start her second career as a nurse. She’s now about to graduate for a second time from UNC Greensboro and be known to her academic colleagues as Dr. McCarthy.

McCarthy, 38, is earning her doctor of nursing practice (DNP) in the adult/gerontological primary care nurse practitioner concentration. Coincidentally, she’ll receive her degree during National Nurses Week.

McCarthy has spent the past three years juggling her classes, her four children, ages 4 to 19, and her nightshifts as a nurse in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center. Over the past decade, she has gone from an apartment manager to on the verge of becoming a nurse practitioner. 

McCarthy has done so while caring for her youngest child, Liam, who was born with cognitive and physical development issues as she was wrapping up her bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) from UNCG in 2017.

“My path to nursing was definitely not a straight line,” she said. “As a nontraditional student, I never would have dreamed I would be where I am today.”

McCarthy regularly works from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. at the hospital and then gets home in time to get her children ready for school. Her husband, Daniel McCarthy, who works as a police officer, has ensured that Liam gets to his different therapy appointments.

McCarthy has also gotten help along the way from a familiar face in the School of Nursing – her younger sister Beth Carlin ’14, ’17 MA.

McCarthy was accepted into the DNP program around the same time Carlin started her position as the clinical placement coordinator in the School of Nursing.

“The past three years we have really supported each other through our time in the School of Nursing,” Carlin said. “I have asked her all kinds of questions about nursing terminology, and she would come to me with my background in English for writing advice. 

“When I reflect on all she has accomplished, especially with the added stress of her ICU practice in the past year, I am just so proud to say she’s my sister.”

McCarthy earned her BSN from UNCG’s RN-to-BSN program. As she was finishing up her final semester in the program, one of her professors, Dr. Laurie Kennedy-Malone, showed up to class with a stack of flyers for the DNP program.

McCarthy took a flyer, came home, and had a conversation with her husband about the possibility of her continuing in school to earn her doctorate.

“It really just resonated with me to hear, ‘You’re a really great candidate. You would be great at this,’” McCarthy said. “The encouragement, I don’t feel like I had that a lot in high school. I don’t feel like I had people saying like ‘You can do this. You are smart, and you are capable.’ And so hearing that, it kind of makes you think like ‘Hey, maybe I can.’”

It wasn’t so simple for her, though.

Soon after McCarthy started the DNP program in August 2018, she learned Liam had special needs. She was still a full-time ICU nurse, and she wondered if she’d be able to continue to go to school while working and taking her son to his doctor appointments around the state.

“Once we realized he was going to have all these specialty visits in Charlotte and Asheville and here in Winston-Salem and Greensboro and Lexington, it became like ‘Can we still do this? Is this a still a good option for us?’” McCarthy said. “But it really has been, and of course now I’m really thankful that we made it work. 

“But I know I couldn’t have done it without the support of the faculty in the DNP program.”

After graduation, McCarthy plans to work as a nurse practitioner to provide care to the aging population that continues to grow in the U.S. She said she hopes to educate patients on managing their health and catching health issues before they become critical illnesses that she regularly sees at her job in the ICU.

“Nursing never went away for me. It was always there,” McCarthy said. “It was just finding the opportunity to really go back to school and fulfill that dream of mine.”

Story by Alex Abrams, School of Nursing
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications

Videography by Grant Evan Gilliard, University Communications

 
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