TCTC Graduate on Front Lines of COVID-19
Date: October 26, 2021
By Lisa Garrett
PENDLETON, SC -- Smith Heavner, MS, RN. (and soon-to-be Ph.D.) starts each day by taking a quick glance at the TCTC practical nursing diploma displayed on the wall in his home. “My other degrees have been at my workplace, but this one I keep in my home.” It’s a treasured document as is the nursing lamp (which symbolizes care and represents the enlightenment that comes with knowledge) that he and fellow classmates received at their LPN pinning ceremony in 2010.
“Each time I look at it, I am filled with pride and nostalgia,” said Heavner. “I remember that there were people who believed in me when I had nothing to show. I look at it and remember that my failures don’t define me. I look at it and remember what was given to me at Tri-County Technical College.” After 11 years of working as a nurse in the Greenville area and as research manager for Prisma Health, Heavner recently accepted a new job as the scientific director of the CURE Drug Repurposing Collaboratory, a private-public partnership of the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health with the Critical Path Institute.
Nearly two decades ago 17-year-old Heavner met Jennifer Beattie (now Hulehan), then a TCTC English instructor who was teaching a dual enrollment class at D. W. Daniel High School, where Heavner was a student.
He says he remembers the day Hulehan told him he had written a college-level paper. “She said I should be proud of my work. I vividly remember her saying that I would succeed in college - not just that I should enroll in college,” he said. Despite being proficient at taking tests and earning a high ACT score, he graduated at the bottom third of his high school class. “I had struggled with the traditional academic environment. I wasn’t good at climbing the proverbial trees. I was interested in a health care career, so I decided I would be a nurse aide and figure things out from there,” he said.
“I wanted to climb the tree; I just wasn’t sure I could. Jen worked with me. She gave me gentle reminders, and I felt like she was helping me to climb that tree instead of asking ‘why can’t you climb the tree?’ It is a powerful moment when you realize that people believe in you,” he said.
He enrolled at TCTC, recognizing that small classes and better relationships with instructors were a plus. “I hoped there were more Jens and there were,” he said.
In 2008, Heavner was pursuing his ADN but failed an obstetrics class. “It knocked me out of the program. I had never failed before,” he said. He didn’t give up, and after receiving a practical nursing degree in 2010 and passing the state board exam, he transitioned back into the ADN program. “When I enrolled a second time, I learned how to be a student. Instructors taught me how to get things done and how to make college work for me.”
He earned his associate degree in nursing in 2012 and passed the NCLEX with ease. He went on to earn a bachelor of science in nursing from Clemson University in 2014. “Throughout all of my education, I continued to work, specializing my clinical practice in emergency and critical care, and I slowly gained experience with quality improvement projects. Research became more appealing to me, and when it became available, I enrolled in Clemson’s graduate certificate program in Clinical and Translational Research. I completed the certificate in 2017 and along the way fell in love with the methodology of evaluation science, so I transferred and completed my master of science in Applied Health Research and Evaluation in 2019,” he said. Heavner expects to complete his Ph.D. in the same program this fall.
Heavner was a research manager at Prisma Health when COVID-19 made it to the U.S. “I was tasked with overseeing the development of our COVID-19 registry. The work included providing the data for leaders to make decisions about our mask and visitation policies, as well as representing the health system in an international registry effort led by the Mayo Clinic and Society of Critical Care Medicine Discovery Network. I also served on the clinical leadership team of Prisma Health’s upstate mass vaccination site,” he said.
His work with COVID-19 built his national reputation and earned him his new job.
He has stayed in touch with Hulehan and former Practical Nursing Department Head, Julie Vernon, over the years.
“I emailed Julie when I received my BSN and again when I received the graduate certificate,” he said.
“I’m very proud of all that I have achieved, and I plan on making a big deal about finishing this Ph.D.,” Heavner said. “But that practical nursing diploma will always be a reminder to me that I didn’t get here on my own and that even when I thought my academic career was over before it even started, there were people who believed in me.”
About Tri-County Technical College
Tri-County Technical College, a public two-year community and technical college serving Anderson, Oconee and Pickens Counties in South Carolina, enrolls more than 9,000 students annually and offers more than 70 major fields of study, including computer technology, industrial electronics, mechatronics, nursing, and university transfer programs. Tri-County boasts the highest student success rate among two-year colleges in the state and ranks in the top one percent nationally for successful student transfers to four-year colleges and universities. To learn more, visit tctc.edu.