God, family sustain nurse during tough year

By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau

Jessica Smith received her high school diploma one warm evening in May 1993 and earned her degree as a licensed practical nurse the very next day.

Smith had decided at age 13, after recovering from a bad bout of pneumonia with the gentle kindness of some wonderful nurses, that a career in nursing was for her. So she buckled down at Central High, pushing through her graduation requirements and taking nursing courses at Metro Tech High at the same time.

Later this year, Smith plans to graduate with a B.S. in Nursing from Grand Canyon University’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions. After the 22-year journey she has been through — from addiction to recovery, single parenting to stable home life and the recent deaths of two family members — there’s nothing this stellar online student can’t handle.

Correction: nothing God can’t help her handle.

“2014 was probably the hardest year of my life,” Smith, 39, says, tears streaming down her face.

Facing addictions with God’s help

Aug. 6, 1999, is an important date for Smith. It’s the day she entered the journey of recovery and turned her life over to God. She had been baptized as a baby but hadn’t grown into a personal relationship with her Lord.

“From then on things were a lot easier than the life I had been living, but it was very, very scary because the life I was living was the only life I knew,” she says.

The testimony of another woman, about God’s gifts of forgiveness and the power to live, gave Smith the courage to stop being destructive in her own life. “It gave me this much hope,” she says, pinching her thumb and index finger together, “that if I tried her solution, it might work.”

Smith had a lot on her plate — focusing one day at a time on her sobriety, working at a long-term care facility, escaping from an abusive marriage and being a single parent to three children. She relied on her parents and her four sisters for support and eventually met a good man who shared her faith in God. She and Kelly Smith married in 2007.

That same year, she earned an associate’s degree in nursing from Central Arizona College after also taking courses at Phoenix College and Rio Salado Community College.

During this period, Smith experienced many miracles, including the generosity of an English professor at Phoenix College who, as Smith was about to bounce a payday loan check to cover the bills, gave her $500. The professor told her, “I was a single mom, and it is my time to pay it forward.”

Smith prayed for a sign that she was on the right career path — and was awarded a tuition scholarship from Soroptimist International. She wondered if she was being a good mother — and her youngest daughter, Desiree Minnis, then 4, said, “Everything is going to be fine because God is deep in your heart.”

“I became the mother God needed me to be,” Smith said.

Nursing, leading, teaching

Smith took whatever nursing jobs came along, from working at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence to home health care. But she found her professional calling in 2009 when she was hired by Sirona Infusion, a Chandler-based provider of IV therapy and education to patients in their homes. She quickly was promoted to assistant director of nursing and today is western regional nurse manager for Sirona, owned by AxelaCare.

Tom Maiefski, Sirona’s founder and AxelaCare’s regional vice president, said Smith is a caring, strong, intuitive nurse, a born teacher and a natural leader with a keen business sense. She was a Godsend who was instrumental in streamlining the policies and procedures for Sirona’s credentialing by the Accreditation Commission for Health Care.

“You would never know what she’s been through because she doesn’t talk about it,” Maiefski said. “She makes everyone around her feel good. As a nurse, she has the ability to assess what’s going on with a patient really quickly and make a decision about what needs to be done in their best interests.”

When Maiefski received a call from a distraught client in Sun City who was unhappy with his company, he called Smith to visit and straighten out the situation. “They called me back the next day to say how much they loved my company,” he said. “But it wasn’t Tom making it happen, it was Jessica out there making it happen.”

Smith declined to take credit, which is so like her, he added. “Jessica gains more respect of those around her because she doesn’t stand up and say, ‘This is about me,’” Maiefski said.

In 2013, Smith once again decided to go back to school, at GCU. At a previous job, she had had the opportunity to work with the University’s student nurses and found them to be well-educated and decisive. A friend who had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing (RN to BSN) recommended the program to her.

Smith began plowing through one course at a time, still working full time, raising her family and participating in her recovery life. And then 2014 happened.

Holding God's hand through upheaval

A year ago, two of Smith’s nephews were removed from her youngest sister’s home, and the Smiths agreed to take them into theirs. Keegan Ellington-Grazioli, now 9, and Bailey Ellington-Grazioli, now 7, were not accustomed to the same structure that the Smith household had established, and the whole family had a difficult time.

Smith said she wouldn’t have been able to help them and her sister if not for the love and support of her husband, two oldest children, Autumn Stapleton, now 19, and Sully Stapleton, now 17, and stepson Ian Smith, 23.

Still, something had to give, and that was school. With help from Heather Banks, her GCU student services adviser, Smith arranged for a two-month leave of absence. Smith calls Banks “one of my Earth angels,” adding, “Heather said, ‘The first thing you need to do is take care of yourself.’ My well-being was her concern.”

Banks can’t say enough about Smith and is looking forward to meeting her at Saturday’s Online Student Night on campus.

“Jessica is a dynamic person who reaches out and just grabs you,” Banks said. “She’s a very special soul.”

Smith returned to school late last late spring. However, in August, her father, Joseph Ellington, unexpectedly died before heart surgery at age 63. Less than three months later, in late October, Smith’s oldest sister, Tausha Ellington, died of a heart attack after knee-replacement surgery. She was 46.

“I just keep believing that there’s a spiritual purpose in everything,” Smith sobbed. “My sister grew up not having a lot of time with my dad, and I feel like it is her time to spend it with him now in heaven. That gives me a lot of peace, that and knowing they are watching over me.”

Smith’s heartbreak wasn’t over, however. Shortly before Thanksgiving her mother, Mary Ellington, became ill and was put on life support. She somehow rallied, and Smith counted it as another miracle. Overwhelmed, Smith again took a leave from GCU and brought her mom home to live with her family, including her nephews.

Smith’s sister had entered a substance-abuse treatment facility and had been working hard for 10 months to get better. In December, her boys were returned to her. “I’m so proud of her — I got my baby sister back,” Smith said.

And, eventually, Smith returned to her studies at GCU, where she has a 3.6 GPA and is on track to graduate in August. She’s hoping her own children and her sisters’ children also are able to go to college someday.

“I’ve had so much given to me,” she said. “Here’s my hand, and here’s God’s hand — I never forget that.”

Maiefski draws inspiration from Smith every time he sees her comfort a patient, advise a fellow nurse or put a smile on the face of someone at his family’s gatherings. She’s a regular part of the crew now and has brought perspective to his life.

“I have some tough days once in awhile, and I go, ‘Jessica Smith,’ she has been through so much more,” he said. “I am really blessed to know her. She’s generous, competitive and so smart. She’s a shining star.”

Contact Janie Magruder at 602-639-8018 or [email protected].


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