Back in early 2017, Susan Parsons Hunter, MBA, RRT, was on a roll. Her job as director of respiratory care, the broch lab, the neuro lab, and dialysis at Saint Francis Hospital in Memphis, TN, was going great and she had just been sworn in as president-elect of the Tennessee Society for Respiratory Care (TSRC).
On April 29, it all came to a crashing halt when a tractor accident took the life of her husband of 36 years and left her daughter with serious injuries.
Parsons Hunter was away at the time, but her daughter — who, along with her husband and three children, lives with Parsons Hunter on her rural Tennessee land – was home. She found her father slumped over the tractor steering wheel and knew she needed to get him down and start CPR. But given the size of the machine — the wheels were taller than she is — it was no easy task. His foot slipped off the clutch and the tractor began to move.
“As she was trying to get him off the tractor, the tractor began to run over her and push her down to the ground,” Parsons Hunter said. “It broke her tibia in her leg and tore her ACL tendon in her knee.” When she let go of her father to get away from the moving tractor, he fell under it and it dragged him down a hill and ran over him, causing a crush injury to his chest.
“My daughter crawled to him and began CPR on him, called for an ambulance, and even asked the ambulance dispatcher to call me,” Parsons Hunter said. “She did CPR until the ambulance arrived. Obviously, my husband did not live.”
The family was devastated. With three grandchildren and her injured daughter to care for, Parsons Hunter had to pull it together enough to keep things going, but the passion she had always had for her life and her profession disappeared.
The kids were grieving the loss of their beloved grandfather. Her daughter was trying to recover from her physical injuries while grappling with grief and a sense that if she had left him on the tractor, she may have been able to save her dad. And Parsons Hunter was mourning the death of the man she had lived with for 36 years.
“For the first time, and for several months after his death, I did not care if the Lord called me home too and did not even care if I had a job or not,” she said.
Given that story, you might think Parsons Hunter is still struggling today.
You would be wrong.
After the first few months went by, she gathered her strength, went back to school to earn her MBA, lost 118 pounds, served as president-elect and president of the TSRC, received the Distinguished Thesis Award from her university for her thesis on pulmonary rehabilitation, and as of this past January, remarried.
Supportive friends at work and her AARC family helped her get through the worst of it, but Parsons Hunter says she eventually decided that the only person who could ensure she made it was herself. It started with a conversation that only she could hear.
“As I sat and thought about the people of Tennessee that voted me into this position, and how many people at work were counting on me, and how my family depended on me, I began to realize I had to bounce back,” she said. “This was a Susan that I had never known and knew I had to make a change quickly.”
By July, she was ready to fully embrace her role as TSRC president-elect, and she enrolled in the MBA program at Independence University in October. The latter was a goal she had long had for herself, and her husband had always encouraged her to go for it. Now she would honor his memory by making it happen.
She knew she needed to lose weight too, so in January of 2018 she joined the Weight Watchers Free Style Program and stuck with it, dropping the 118 pounds by October of that year.
Getting the degree, though, served as the fuel that reignited her life and she poured herself into the process while reengaging in everything else as well.
“Full time work, school, and TSRC activities is all I knew for 16 straight months,” says Parsons Hunter. “I love teaching and learning, so I knew my mind had to be focused to pull me out of my pity party that I was having for myself.”
She decided to do her thesis on the implementation of a pulmonary rehabilitation program in an acute care hospital because she spent a large portion of her career connected to the specialty and even served as the administrator of two outpatient pulmonary rehabilitation CORFs for three years.
“I know the impact pulmonary rehab can have on patient outcomes and quality of life for the COPD patient,” Parsons Hunter said.
Meeting her new husband — a widower himself — on a dating site was the icing on the cake.
“We flew to Las Vegas and got married on Jan. 13, 2020 and we are so very happy,” she said.
Stand and fight
Parsons Hunter believes her story of recovery from loss can hold lessons for others as well, and especially today when everyone is trying their best to cope with the unparalleled challenges being posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The key advice that I can give is, do not fear change,” she said. “On that Saturday afternoon when my husband died, change had engulfed my life, and nothing would ever be the same again. So, I had to stand up and embrace this change and develop new ways to get through this change. I was forced out of my 36 year comfort zone and called on my faith in God to pull me through this change and focused on school and weight loss and today I am better for it with my MBA, 4.0 GPA, and 118 pounds lighter and healthier.”