Kimilee Steinmiller has enough intestinal fortitude to fill all of Texas.
After beating cancer while in her 20s, she was in a head-on car accident that left her in a wheelchair and derailed her nursing practice in 2009. Since then, the Toledo, Ohio, native has buried two of her sons.
"I told someone the other day that so much has happened to me in the last decade, I couldn't even put it in a country music song," she said. "It's too sad for a country music song."
One of Steinmiller's sons, 21-year-old Jackson, succumbed to fibrolamellar, a rare form of liver cancer, five months after she had enrolled in the online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at UTA
"I ended up having to drop some of my classes," she said. "I was going to take classes in the summer, but I decided not to. I just started back this fall. Then, I decided to take it a little bit slower than I initially intended to.
"In hindsight, I should have taken one class in the summer, because I know that it really helped with my grief when I started back to school. It was smart of me to realize I was going to need something like this. It's been a godsend. I'm so jazzed about what I'm doing and reconnecting to nursing. I love to learn the new things."
Steinmiller is on pace to graduate in December 2019. However, she is thinking of adding a public health degree immediately after graduation. Either way, she also plans to earn master's and doctoral degrees.
"I'm going to be in school a while," she said. "I want to work in public health and, ultimately, have a say in public health policies. I have a dual interest in nursing and politics. I would like to be on the state board of nursing here in Ohio.
"I'd love to work for the National Institute of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Working in epidemiology and being the person who looks at the statistics and decides what's going in the flu shot that year is my ultimate dream job."
The nursing bug bit Steinmiller when she was 14 years old and working as a nursing home aide. She was certified as a Licensed Nurse Practitioner (LPN) three years later. Steinmiller graduated with an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) from Owens Community College in 1997.
"I practiced as an LPN from the time I was 17 until I was 23," she said. "The more I learned about nursing, the more I loved it. Being a nurse is so entwined with my self-identity that it's probably not healthy. I graduated with my ASN and immediately went back for my BSN. That's when I got cancer, which really sucks."
Steinmiller had a malignant tumor on a peripheral nerve in her right hand, which turned out to be a painful but treatable neuroma.
"As cancer goes, it's the kind you want to get because it hurts and you find it early and don't die from it," she said. "It was an ordeal to go through. I went through optional radiation and chemotherapy just to make sure it was gone because I was in my 20s and had a 2-year-old. I didn't want to take any chances."
Steinmiller was working as a nurse for Parrish Homecare and en route from one patient visit to another when she got in the car accident.
"I thought I was going back to work as soon as I could write again with my arm in pieces," she said. "My dad was going to drive me to all of my patients. My employer said, 'I don't think so.' Had I still been working for ProMedica, the big hospital network where I worked for the bulk of my career, they would have put me back to work."
The following year, her son, Derrick, died of an illness. To help herself with the grieving process, Steinmiller decided to return to school to complete the BSN at Lourdes University.
"Before my accident, I was practicing far beyond my degree," she said. "Nursing is a weird profession because there are so many entry points. Just because I've been doing it since I was 14 and the experience that I accrued, people forgot I never finished that original BSN."
Steinmiller left Lourdes University because she had issues with the school and her service dog. Then, Jackson was diagnosed with cancer. She and her husband, Bernie, have three more children, Kenley, Brian and Kitty. The couple also have foster children in their home.
"I need more education so I can still have the back half of my career," she said. "It was no longer optional. It occurred to me last fall that my son was going to die. He was my youngest and the last one living at home. When he died, I was going to need something in my life."
After initially enrolling in an online program at a local university, Steinmiller decided to become a Maverick instead.
"I was researching about Jackson's cancer on the internet, but I happened to see the UTA nursing program," she said. "I was enrolled to start this other program. I changed it at the last minute and decided I want to go to Texas. I'm glad that I did."
She spent most of the ensuing three years taking her son to treatment centers across the country, including those in Chicago, New York and Houston. Though they also squeezed in some fun, going to San Diego for Comic-Con as part of a bucket list.
"I never knew where I was going to be at any given moment; I just knew that I needed to make sure I had an internet connection," Steinmiller said. "I had to have the flexibility to be wherever I needed to be for him."
At Home Online
The online format works well for Steinmiller as she is back to full strength in the program. Even though she lives in Ohio, she feels like she is deep in the heart of Texas.
"My professors and my coach were wonderful," she said. "I was really struggling to keep everything together. My statistics professor, Dr. Elizabeth Howell, is a wonderful teacher. She really has a knack for taking the most complicated things and having them make sense. That's truly a gift. I don't know how she does it, because I tend to overcomplicate things."
So far, NURS 4465: Care of Vulnerable Populations Across the Lifespan is her favorite course in the online RN to BSN curriculum.
"That's kind of what I'm aiming for," she said. "I've worked a lot in community health — both in vaccination and screening programs and doing home care. I want to take that and spin it toward public health.
"It's really important that I understand the statistics and concepts because they're so important in public health and the informatics portion I need to have going forward and actually practicing. You have to get FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] certification in that course, which I thought was really cool."
Steinmiller said that she also enjoyed this particular class because the professor, Dr. Melissa Lagrone, was so helpful and accommodating while Jackson was nearing the end of his life.
It's not only the nursing courses that Steinmiller has appreciated though. She recalls some fun from her general education courses as well.
"It's amazing the things you end up doing when you go back to school," she said. "I had to go buy soap yesterday to carve my Moai statue for my art appreciation class. I was really interested in Texas history, and I live in Ohio and don't know anything about Texas. Some of the classes you have to take that don't have anything to do with nursing end up being fun."
Steinmiller plans to cap — and gown — the bachelor's degree program by attending graduation in Arlington.
"There are a couple of people at UTA I have sworn to take out to lunch," she said. "I would like to meet Dr. Elizabeth Howell, Dr. Melissa Lagrone, and some other people in person. I'm absolutely coming to Texas to graduate. I'm nomadic anyway."
Because Steinmiller has endured so much tragedy, she appreciates and never takes for granted the good things in her life.
"I have a wonderful marriage to my husband," she said. "He's very supportive. He owns a business repairing professional painting equipment. He was doing it under the auspices of a big painting contractor for a long time. They were a victim of the great recession in 2009 and went into receivership. He brought the business he had already been running home so that he was around more — so if I need him, he's home."
In addition to spending time with Bernie, she enjoys being around her children and grandkids.
"The cutest thing is, I have a 6-year-old granddaughter named Iris who thinks it's hilarious that I go to school," Steinmiller said. "She just started kindergarten. At her birthday party, she told her friends that her 'Gama' has to go to school. She literally laughed. I got all of the little ones UTA magnets and T-shirts."
Steinmiller knows she is in for an emotional day when she walks the graduation stage. She believes the key to success in the online RN to BSN program is pacing.
"Remember that no matter how long it's been that you've put this off, don't rush through it," she said.
"You don't have to take 19 credit hours. Take one class or two classes at a — especially if you work and have a lot of other obligations. You'll get through it and not lose your sanity. Remember that it's a marathon and not a sprint.
"Nurses tend to overdo. We tend to be the type of women who spray-paint a big 'S' on our chest and fly off into the wind. We need to remember that it's flexible, but nursing school is hard because being a nurse is hard."
If anybody deserves to don that Superwoman 'S' on her chest, it's Steinmiller.
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