December 16, 2021

Ready to give back, ‘Momma Jennie’ gets her nursing diploma from FMU

Ready to give back, ‘Momma Jennie’ gets her nursing diploma from FMU

When Jennie Sawyer graduated from Florence Christian School, she chose Clemson University and spent a year on the traditional college path. But just one year.

When she fell in love, she chose marriage and motherhood.

“Young and stupid,” she said with a laugh, “but I have no regrets. I figured I’d eventually go back.”

Years later, when her husband, Tim, became gravely ill and went through 22 surgeries in three years, she fell in love with nursing and chose Francis Marion University.

On Thursday, December 16, she spoke at her pinning ceremony ahead of her Friday graduation from FMU with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Soon, Sawyer will start as a nurse in the trauma surgical unit at McLeod Regional Medical Center. The same unit where Tim was treated. The same unit where nurses inspired Sawyer’s new career.

“I’ve come full circle,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer’s path to FMU was a little different from her classmates. She’s 38, married, and has three children, ages 17, 14 and 10. It’s easy to see how Sawyer earned a nickname among her fellow students.

“A lot of them call me ‘Momma Jennie,’” Sawyer said. “I was worried at first. I’d been out of school for how long? Since I was 19. I wasn’t sure how I was going to fit. Would I have any friends? I’ll tell you, they’re very respectful people. I hope my kids turn out like they’ve turned out.”

Age isn’t the only difference between Sawyer and her cohorts. Her life has seen more than a few twists and turns. 

Seven years ago Sawyer and her husband invested everything they had to start an event-staging business. A year into the venture, Tim woke up after a weekend event seriously ill.

“We ended up taking him to the ER, and he had to have surgery,” Sawyer said. “That surgery failed. He went into septic shock and was put on a ventilator, and he was given a 30% chance to live. Perfectly healthy. Just out of nowhere got sick.”

Just like that, life changed.

“We lost everything,” Sawyer said. “We moved in with my parents. They helped take care of the kids. Once he stabilized, he encouraged me to go back to school.”

She took her prerequisite classes at Florence-Darlington Technical College. When she looked into FMU’s nursing program, she was impressed with the culture and discovered a feeling of family.

“We support each other, and we do what we need to do to help each other succeed,” Sawyer said.

Dr. Nina Russell, an assistant professor of nursing and the RN, BSN program coordinator at FMU, says Sawyer fit in well.

“She’s so genuine and hardworking and thoughtful, and her compassion and care for everybody, from patients to her peers, even faculty, if she thinks you’re having an off day – it’s just remarkable,” Russell said.

“I’ve been teaching for many years. Jennie’s probably a student that I’ll never forget. She genuinely wants to learn and do what’s right. She’s in this for service.”

Tim was treated at McLeod. His surgeries were performed at MUSC in Charleston.

“I fell in love with nursing watching the nurses care for him,” Sawyer said. “They’re who I credit with saving his life. I thought, ‘I would love to do this one day, and I think I can.’

Ashley Crew is one of the McLeod nurses who influenced Sawyer.

“My husband had had major surgery,” Sawyer said. “I could tell by the nurse’s face that she was really concerned. She stayed late that evening. She put him first and herself last. … I felt like she did everything humanly possible. I said something, and she said, ‘Well, it’s my job to take care of you, too.’ I knew that I wanted to give back one day. … 

“She still works on that floor. She’s still amazing.”

The Sawyers are still in debt, but life is improving.

“We have our own place,” Jennie Sawyer said. “Getting this degree will completely change our lives. It will give my children the opportunity to further their education. I consider myself very blessed to have the opportunity FMU has given me to provide for my family while also pursuing my dreams.”

Russell says McLeod is gaining a nurse who is beyond an entry-level employee.

“I would trust her to care for me and my child, and that says a lot, because I don’t usually trust anybody,” Russell said. “She will be phenomenal, and they’re lucky to have her.

“She’s very mature. She’s very motherly, and I mean that in a nice way. She cares about what’s going on with everyone. Everyone comes to her for emotional support and to vent. She’s pretty much the student body president for her class. She speaks on behalf of others. They saw her as a mentor and a leader from the start.”

In many ways, Russell says that Sawyer exemplifies the caring approach FMU Nursing tries to instill in its students.

“There’s more than the human being in that bed,” Russell said. “There are spiritual aspects, emotional aspects. … The extension of a patient is family. Jennie has never forgotten that.

“She sees already what I’d say takes a novice nurse two years to build. That kind of attention and focus, she’s already mastered that.”

Every time Sawyer enters a hospital room, she says she sees the person sitting on the couch.

“I remember being there,” she said. “I remember being scared. You have to trust somebody else to take care of the person that you love the most. …

“You see things differently when you’ve been on the other side of it. I have to take that experience and not waste it. I want to use the hurt and the heartache to help others who are going through similar things.”