PROFILE: Katie Newton: Taking a leap of faith

As bedtime encroached Kindergarten-aged Sawyer could be found with an arts and crafts project. But his mom Katie Newton wasn’t folding clothes or prepping lunches, at least not at that hour. Instead, she was right by his side at the kitchen table with a pile of nursing school homework. Other times he would help her study by going through some flashcards with her. By default, Sawyer probably knows more about the human body than the average 5-year-old.

But that’s just one snapshot into Newton’s life. On any given evening, she could putting her son to bed, writing a paper, studying for a test, working or at clinicals. As someone who lives life by two planners, one paper and one digital, learning to take life as it comes was a bit of a challenge as a full-time student.

Before going back to school at Jefferson State Community College in 2017, the Chelsea resident was the type of person who liked for her days to be thoroughly planned out, but throughout her journey she learned the importance of being able to adapt to unexpected changes. From having to take Sawyer to class with her to Ubering to school when her car broke down, she knew that if she really wanted to succeed, she had to find a way to make it happen.

The decision that changed her life

At the time of her divorce when her son Sawyer was a year old, Newton had a promising career in healthcare administration, but she didn’t feel content. She knew there was more she was meant to do. After her divorce, she wanted to channel her energy into something positive for her son and herself. “I had seen so many people around me get divorced and just start to spiral out of control for a little bit,” Newton says. She refused to let that be her story.

Although she already had an undergraduate degree from UAB in healthcare administration, she had always wanted to further her education in nursing. She took a leap of faith and decided to pursue a master’s in nursing at Jeff State. “People probably thought I was crazy for doing it right after my divorce because my son was 2 when I actually started the program,” Newton shares as she rounded out her two years of the program. “Honestly, it’s been tough but it was absolutely the best decision that I could’ve made for the both of us.”

Even though Newton longed to be a nurse, she was especially fond of one aspect of her job in healthcare administration: working with oncology patients to manage their care. “Being able to educate them and walk them through a difficult time in their lives was just such a blessing and so rewarding for me,” Newton says. “I went back to school knowing I always wanted to stay in oncology.”

One particular patient she met while working in healthcare administration had a particularly profound impact on her. The patient was a woman in her 30s who had just given birth to a child and was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Just being able to walk through that with her, educate her and love on her, and then to see how she came out of it on the other side is something that has always been a driving factor for me,” she says. Whenever nursing school and the pressures of life felt like more than she could bare, Newton thought about this woman and it reminded her of her purpose.

Making it through nursing school

What started out as a class of 50 aspiring nurses in Jeff State’s Registered Nursing Program dwindled down to just 19 by graduation, but Newton says her classmates are now like family. “We went through a lot together,” she says. “There are other single moms in our class, people have dealt with the deaths of their parents and other traumatic events, and we all really could not have finished without each other. At times we may not agree, but we have each others’ back.”

Together she and her classmates struggled through the day-to-day stress of figuring out ways to make ends meet financially. Being a full-time student meant Newton couldn’t work full-time. Instead she worked various odd jobs that fit into her hectic schedule. Luckily for Newton, her tuition was paid through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which awards education grants to those who qualify, but she still needed to earn money to pay other bills. During the two years it took to complete the nursing program, she worked as a caretaker for elderly people, at an urgent care center, as a substitute teacher and as a student nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

She would be the first to admit that the challenges that came with nursing school tested her resolve. A students became B students, and B students became C students. Anxiety levels were high, especially at the end of each semester. To pass a course, students had to earn at least a 75. A grade of 74.4 meant you failed. “We really had to learn how to stay positive and keep our heads in the game,” Newton says.

Even in the classes that were hard, Newton now realizes how much she actually learned. She says the nursing instructors at Jeff State have a heart for training students and helping them develop into great nurses. “They’re our biggest cheerleaders and supporters,” she says.

Nursing school isn’t for the faint of heart, according to Natasha Grimes, Jeff State’s nursing simulation supervisor. It requires dedication and commitment, all of which Newton has always possessed. “She progressed throughout her journey to become an excellent example of what we want to see at the bedside,” Grimes says. “Katie’s strongest asset is her easygoing personality. She is a pleasure to be around and easy to work with. Not many can put a situation into perspective, allowing for better decision making to improve patient care.”

In addition to learning the technical skills needed to be a nurse, Newton says her professors helped her grow as a person, even in the times when her outspoken personality caused her to butt heads with those who taught her. During one particular incident, Newton wasn’t happy about a situation, and she got angry and didn’t handle the situation the way she should have. “That particular teacher, Dr. Gena Richardson, is just so precious to me now because she showed me grace in that situation. She displayed to me what it means to show grace to other people,” Newton says. She later apologized to Dr. Richardson and says the situation was a very humbling experience. She learned that she cannot control everything. Sometimes she had to have faith and trust that everything would work out for the best.

For Sawyer

Newton is a believer in the saying “it takes a village to raise a child,” and during her journey to become a nurse, she realized even more the importance of surrounding herself with one. Her support system is made up of her parents, friends, boyfriend, classmates, professors and her ex-husband, who was willing to adjust or change their days with Sawyer to help accommodate her schedule.

When Sawyer went to spend time with his dad, she threw herself into her school work to get as much done as possible. One of Sawyer’s preschool teachers lived near Newton and would sometimes take him to school and bring him home or keep him early. “She was a huge help, and now she is a second semester nursing student, so it’s come full circle,” Newton says. “Now she’s calling me and I’m helping her. I love how that worked out. She’s a mom too, so it’s awesome.”

One time when she had a test but Sawyer was sick, Newton’s professor told her to bring him along and let him play on an iPad, and she brought him to a simulation lab class with her as well, just as professors allowed for other classmates too. When her car broke down, she was thankful that she could rely on friends, classmates and Uber to help her get to where she needed to be. Her father soon stepped in and helped her get a safe and reliable vehicle.

But there were times during her journey through nursing school when she felt like she had so much on her plate that she couldn’t give her son 100 percent of her attention. “Those are probably some of the hardest times and I’d really have to lean on friends and family for encouragement,” Newton says. “I felt like I was doing the best that I could but I could only give 50 percent of me here, and 50 percent of me there. As a mother, that’s very hard because we all want the best for our kids. Should I put the book down, stop studying and go play with him instead of him doing arts and crafts by himself? So, I definitely felt some guilt there.”

Most of how she felt was the result of her being too hard on herself, she says, as she watched how well her son handled it and never complained. Even though he’s only 5, she can see that he somewhat understands the concept of working hard to reach a goal. “He has seen me studying and working toward a goal and I think it has helped instill work ethic in him,” she says.

Looking back on her journey, Newton is grateful for the good and the bad because it got her to where she wanted to be. She graduated from Jeff State’s nursing program in December 2019, and on Jan. 6 she started her career as a nurse at UAB in the bone marrow transplant and stem cell research unit working with patients who have advanced forms of cancer. As she talked about her new job, her passion and enthusiasm shined through. Although she’s reached her goal, she’s not done yet. Up next are steps to become a nurse practitioner.