The Top-Notch Nurse We Almost Didn't Get

Posted by Rachel Vogel-Quinn on Mar 27, 2019 12:44:09 PM

rhonda featureWhen Rhonnie finished class in the afternoon, she would get into her car, just like other nursing students at Mercy College. But she wouldn’t head home to study. Instead, she would cruise the city, looking for a parking space to spend the night, while silently mouthing that day’s lessons to herself.

“It’s really hard to be homeless,” Rhonnie says, “but it’s really hard to be homeless when you’re trying to study. You have to stop thinking about: ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight or where am I going to park the car tonight?’ and think about electrolyte balance instead. And it’s just a crazy thing to think about while you’re in your car.”

The grandmother of nine (with a 10th on the way) lived in her car in the summer of 2018, and not for the first time during her educational journey. She had vowed to earn her RN (registered nursing degree) by the time she turned 55, and she was oh, so close. But money was running out. When her landlord sold her apartment building, she faced a choice between two essentials.

“Instead of putting a down payment on a place, I bought books and stayed in my car,” Rhonnie explains. “It probably wasn’t the best decision, but it’s what I did. You can’t go to school without books.”

That was a low point in Rhonnie's life. But she's not one to give up, and, thankfully, United Way's Central Iowa HealthWorks was looking for students just like her.

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United Way's Central Iowa HealthWorks connects central Iowans to careers in health care. Launched in 2017, the program was conceived as a collaborative effort to train 380 individuals who face barriers in the workforce, like Rhonda. Already, 500 have received training or education. Nearly 70% represent minority populations.

As 40 percent of central Iowa's health care workers will be eligible to retire in the next 5-10 years, Central Iowa HealthWorks is essential to the area's employers and all residents who use health care services. 

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Architect Interrupted

Rhonnie has an effervescent laugh that comes bubbling out of her every few sentences, even when describing her struggles. Her energy and optimism ripple around her like her long blond hair. Her favorite adjective is “amazing.” It’s not a verbal tic; she really believes everyone she meets is amazing. It’s an astonishing attitude, considering all that life has thrown at Rhonnie Davis.

“She hasn’t just walked the walk, says Jana Tanner, pathway navigator at United Way’s Central Iowa HealthWorks. “She has lived it.”

Ronnie as babyRhonnie grew up in Ankeny with a younger brother and two loving parents. They had a stable, middle-class lifestyle, and Rhonnie dreamed of becoming an architect. She even took shop class and mechanics with the boys in high school. But when she started taking college classes at DMACC, tragedy struck. At age 19, Rhonnie was raped—the first in a series of disasters that would dog her throughout her adult life.

Rhonnie had become pregnant as a result of the rape, and she decided to keep the child. She soon met and married a man with whom she had a second son. But he left her soon after, with two young kids to provide for. She married again a few years later and had a third son, and her three children are the cornerstones of her life. She spent much of their childhood as a stay-at-home-mom, making their care and happiness her main priority.

In 1993, Rhonnie got into a severe car accident on black ice, which caused closed-head trauma and significant medical problems for years, including serious migraines. As the kids grew, she couldn’t work due to her medical issues, so she got onto Social Security for her disability. Rhonnie loved her family dearly, but she felt like something was missing from her life.


An Opening Through Clouds

Des Moines background vertical cropped-1Rhonnie’s chance for change came when grief smacked her three-fold in the year 2007. Her youngest son left for college—not unexpected but still difficult for a mother. Then her father died. Lastly, her marriage of 21 years failed.

Rhonnie found herself alone, with nothing to do but wallow in regret and grief. But that contradicts her very nature. She remembered her father, a man of action, who always asked, “Well, what are we going to do about this?” Rhonnie’s answer was to go back to school, something she had always dreamed of doing.

She enrolled in Iowa State University with a neuroscience major, and later transferred to the University of Iowa to study psychology. Because her only income was Social Security Disability, Rhonnie relied on Pell Grants to help pay for tuition. Before her last semester, the government instituted a lifetime limit for those grants. And she had exceeded them. She couldn’t finish her degree.

Devastated, she returned home to central Iowa.

For a while, she lived in her car. For a while, she worked at Walmart, feeling like she had hit a dead-end.

She called United Way's 2-1-1 for help and appreciated their kindness and assistance. She volunteered at soup kitchens and then ate meals there afterward. She lived with her sons or friends when possible, but she couldn’t always follow through on her plans to move forward.

“I remember being so depressed that I couldn’t get off the couch,” Rhonnie says. 

But then she remembered a favorite professor from Iowa State who—recognizing her people skills and her head for science—had suggested she become a nurse. She decided to start with her CNA (certified nursing assistant)—and found a free class with Project Iowa, funded by United Way of Central Iowa. Almost immediately, she knew she had discovered her calling.

“OK, that’s it!” she remembers saying to herself. “You know when you know.”

She loved working with patients, feeling she could make an impact on someone’s life, even when it was just for a few hours. And she was a great student, eating up the medical terms. She quickly moved on to her advanced CNA and started working as a patient care technician at Mercy Medical Center. She was set on becoming a nurse. In 2016, she officially enrolled in the Mercy College BSN program for nursing.


Mercy for Rhonnie, Please

Money and housing were perpetually problems for Rhonnie. She worked when she could, and she had her disability income, but it was never enough.

“The problem with living paycheck to paycheck is when something comes up—and nobody’s life goes perfectly—you’re on the street. You’re in your car.

“If the car breaks down and it’s $1,000, you only get $1,000 a month. You are without a car or without a place to live. There’s really no way to save money, because you’re always in a deficit. So when anything came up, there I was, homeless again.”

Rhonnie lived in her car on and off throughout her time at Mercy College. When she could afford an apartment and the dreaded deposit, it often had bugs or other problems.

To keep her mind off living in such places, Rhonnie volunteered.

“I found out that in helping other people, it made my plate seems less,” Rhonnie says.

At homeless shelters, Rhonnie checked the lungs of clients and sent any with problems to a doctor. At CFUM (Children and Family Urban Movement), she spent time with kids in an after-school program funded by United Way.

rhonda tutoring

While volunteering and dealing with her financial issues, Rhonnie was getting top marks in her nursing classes. Rhonnie earned a spot in the most prestigious training experience for nursing students—the neurotrauma ICU. She was ready to be a nurse.

But there was a problem. The money had run out. Again.


Health Works at Rock Bottom

This time, Rhonnie had an idea of what was coming. She was using Social Security PASS to pay for tuition, and she had cut down her classes in her second-to-last semester to slow the money leak. But she owed $4,000 and couldn’t register for her last semester until that debt was paid.

She had tried to get a job and pay month by month, but it was too difficult to keep up with classes. Seventh semester is the hardest of the degree.

“So I’m halfway through the summer semester, sleeping in my car,” Rhonnie remembers. “Thinking back on that, I was probably a crazy person. I was so nervous, I had hives.”

Des Moines background horizontal (best shot 2)Joe Brookover, director of financial aid at Mercy College, pointed Rhonnie toward United Way’s Central Iowa HealthWorks, which supports central Iowans seeking careers in health care.

Rhonnie filled out the paperwork and went in for a meeting with Jana Tanner, pathway navigator. Later, she received an email saying she had been accepted into the program. Central Iowa HealthWorks would pay for her tuition.

“When I got that email, I just bawled and bawled,” Rhonnie says.

Rhonnie describes how she was feeling then: “All this work, all this time, and I’m going to get stopped at the finish line, almost. It was so frustrating, and it was a light at the end of the tunnel when Jana said: ‘Hey we can do this.’”

Throughout her last two semesters, Rhonnie received calls and emails from Jana and other HealthWorks staff that she describes as “hugs over the Internet!”

“Their attitude is: ‘What can I do to help? We got you! This is really hard, but you can do this!’”

For Rhonnie, this support was just what she needed, after years of almost but not quite getting there, years of living in her car and run-down apartments, years of doubting whether she was making the right decision. Her parents were gone; she needed a cheerleader. Central Iowa HealthWorks became her champion.

“It’s not just the money,” she says of the program. “It’s saying to the person: the reason we’re helping you is because you’re worth it. It’s indescribable to have people say they believe in you.”

Central Iowa HealthWorks believed, and they were right. Rhonda graduated in December of 2018.

The next step was passing her boards. Central Iowa HealthWorks paid for the review and the testing. Erica Tulk, employment and retention specialist, even went with Rhonnie to the police station for her fingerprinting.

In February, Rhonnie passed her boards and officially became a registered nurse.

“I’m over the moon!” she says.


What’s Beyond Your Control

Rhonnie now lives in a nice apartment she loves with a one-year lease. In March, she was offered a job at MercyOne Medical Center in the Decision Control Unit, where she’ll help care for and monitor patients coming from the emergency room who aren’t admitted to intensive care.

“I think it’s cool that I have a job and I can support me,” says Rhonnie. “I feel complete.”

Rhonnie and her grandson Magellan
Rhonda and magellan

Long-term, Rhonnie plans to return to school to earn a graduate degree so that she can teach in the nursing program. She feels that, because of everything she’s been through, she has a unique perspective to share with students.

Looking back on her journey, she says: “I thought, ‘I just don’t know if I have the strength to do this. How can I make decisions for other people if I’m not getting these things done?’ But what I learned was that things happen to people out of their control. And I am now in a position to help people who’ve had things happen to them, and it has nothing to do with whether they are worth it.”

Rhonnie still carries lists of government resources and nonprofit agencies around with her. She’s not worried for herself; she knows that a nursing degree pretty much guarantees her a job. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates of shortage of 1.09 million nurses by 2024.) But she knows her experience makes her a good advisor for her patients, who may be going through some of the same things.

“When people are struggling, it just means they’ve hit a bad moment,” says Rhonnie. “And someone needs to encourage them to just keep going. I would hope they could see that people care. If there’s someone there, they might just try a little harder and not give up.”


United Way and Central Iowa HealthWorks is here to help people keep going, even when they feel like giving up.

Learn more about Central Iowa HealthWorks, and the health certifications/degrees we support, by clicking the button below.

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