Lately, Heather Nations fills her days by taking first-year classes in the UF School of Physician Assistant Studies and leading fitness classes at Gainesville’s Barre Forte studio. Her life is active, balancing work, family and self-care.
Though her weeks are busy, she sees each day as a fresh opportunity. Just a decade ago, doctors gave her a 10 percent chance of surviving the year.
At age 35, Nations was diagnosed with stage 3 synovial sarcoma, a rare form of soft-tissue cancer. At the time, her four children ranged from 18 months to 11 years old.
“For a year, getting better became my full-time job, in addition to taking care of my kids,” she says. “All my focus had to be on recovery.”
After undergoing six rounds of chemotherapy in seven months, Nations is now cancer free. She is also this year’s recipient of the B. Dianne Farb Health Care Scholarship, given to future health care providers who have been personally impacted by cancer.
“I was an occupational therapist, so I had seen being ill from one side of the bed. Now, I have a heightened awareness of the experiences of oncology patients. I remember the preparations involved, the money and the discomfort,” she says. “The experience gave me strong opinions and interests in hospice and palliative care. Not many 35-year-olds have to complete end-of-life evaluations.”
She says receiving this scholarship helps to alleviate her family’s educational expenses – Nations, her daughter and her son are all enrolled in universities. It also serves as a source of validation.
“This scholarship tells me I’m doing the right thing,” she says. “It’s intimidating to go back to school when you’re 20 years older than your classmates.”
Ever since she was a girl acting as caretaker to two younger sisters, Nations knew health care was her future. She entered the UF School of Physician Assistant Studies in 2016 after a first career as an occupational therapist. She says her experiences have been collaborative and enjoyable.
“I have a great study group. When it comes to my experiences in women’s health and oncology, my classmates look to my experiences. They’re not afraid to ask questions, and I’m always happy to answer,” she says.
A self-described “fixer,” Nations became inspired to continue her studies as a physician assistant after working within a standardized patient program at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona.
“Once I recovered, I decided it was now or never,” she says. “I want to make my survivorship count.”