Eight years ago, Rhonda Lucas never dreamed she’d be graduating with a master’s degree in nursing. She wasn’t sure she’d live to see 2013.

Lucas, 53, graduated with honors Dec. 13, as an adult/gerontological nurse practitioner. She is a mother of two, a non-traditional student, and a late-stage, colorectal cancer survivor.

“By all odds, I shouldn’t be here,” Lucas of her cancer diagnosis. “But it made me a better nurse. Anytime you are a patient, it makes you a better nurse.”

Lucas, who earned her associate’s degree in nursing from Central Piedmont Community College back in 1984, has almost 30 years of nursing experience under her belt. In 2005, just two months before she graduated from Winston-Salem State with her nursing bachelor’s, she found out she had colorectal cancer. Stage 3.

Only 46 at the time, she was working full time as director of clinical operations for Hospice of Rockingham County.

Lucas had noticed symptoms, and pushed for diagnostic tests when she heard the case study of a local woman with Stage 1 colorectal cancer. Lucas would later care for that woman as she lay dying in Hospice.

“I got to tell her she saved my life,”  she says. “Just to pass that on and to be able to take care of people is a privilege.”

Lucas struggled through two surgeries, and then went back to work. She didn’t miss a day while she went through six months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Lucas fell in love with nursing when she was 12 years old. The pre-teen embraced her role as caregiver for her Aunt Janet, her mom’s sister, who was undergoing breast cancer treatment.

Getting through the master’s program at UNCG has been a struggle financially, Lucas says, but she made it through with help from research and teaching assistantships.

“That stipend made the difference,” she says. “It helped pay my bills.”

Lucas, a member of the Sigma Theta Tau honor society for nursing, also pooled resources from a training grant and two scholarships — the Barbara Ziel-Alice Kautz nursing scholarship and the Edward M. Armfield Sr. Endowed Scholarship Fund for Nurse Practitioners.

At home, Lucas has her own cheering section. She says her husband of 29 years, Robert, and their adult children, Taylor and Stacie, have encouraged her every step of the way.

Lucas wants to work as a nurse practitioner making house calls and already has a job offer. Keeping elderly patients at home is essential for their mental and physical well-being, helping them avoid infections and unnecessary confusion, she says.

“I like being in people’s homes.That’s where you get to know the real person. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they just really open up. We are learning that what doctors did back in the old days, making house calls, they did for a reason.”

She dreams of retiring with Robert to the N.C. mountains. He would escort her down the winding, snow-covered roads to make house calls. “Maybe I won’t go on horseback,” she says. “Hopefully it will be with four-wheel drive.”

Story by Michelle Hines, University Relations

Photography by Chris English, University Relations