I had it in my head that I was too old to learn something new. But I beat cancer, so I figured I could do anything. —Kristie Heyborne
KEARNS — Kristie Heyborne’s story is a made-for-Hallmark special. It’s the story of a West Valley woman who overcomes work, family and health challenges to fulfill a lifelong dream of getting a college education.
Roll the trailer, please: Here is Kristie rising in the middle of the night to work a shift at the warehouse. Here is Kristie rushing off to class, a middle-aged woman sitting in a class of 20-somethings; here’s Kristie rushing back to the warehouse and then home again, where she has raised her children and a few more to boot; here is Kristie as bald as a basketball while fighting off cancer.
When Kristie, now 46, earned her degree in medical assistance from Everest College earlier this year, it was a happy ending — and a happy beginning. She is now employed as a medical assistant to a pediatrician at Intermountain Kearns Clinic, performing EKGs, blood draws, vaccinations and the rest of it.
“I am so thankful every single day,” she says. “I told my boss that. I feel truly blessed and thankful.”
Kristie always wanted to go to college after graduating from Kearns High, but no one in her family had more than a high school degree and no one even talked about higher education. After that, life came at her fast. Married at 18, a homeowner at 19, a baby at 20, two more babies by 23.
“It was a lot of work, but I loved being a mom,” she says.
To supplement the family’s income, she opened a daycare service. And still there were more children. Kristie and her husband, Greg, took in a friend’s children who were having difficulty in their own home — four of them over the years, to be exact — and cared for them along with their own three children until they graduated from high school.
“My goal was always to go to college, but, as a mom, you just take care of the kids first,” she says.
At 36, she had more pressing matters than an education. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was devastating,” she says. “You hear the doctor telling you about survival rates and it slaps you in the face. I wanted to be there when my kids graduated.” It was an aggressive type of cancer, but it was detected before it had spread. She underwent chemo and radiation therapy and surgery.
After beating cancer, she went to work part time in a boutique that offered support and services for breast cancer survivors. She did this for two years until the sad stories — which struck close to home for her — took an emotional toll and she quit. Needing money for Christmas, she took a job in a warehouse at 38 and wound up working there for several years.
The years rolled by and she had pretty much abandoned her hopes for a higher education and a career in the medical field. At 45, she was too old, she thought. Her classmates would be young enough to be her daughters. What were they going to talk about — MTV and Katy Perry?
Then a co-worker and friend at the warehouse got the education bug and convinced Kristie to join her.
“I had it in my head that I was too old to learn something new,” she says. “But I beat cancer, so I figured I could do anything.”
She had to give up a lot of sleep to go to school and continue working full time at the warehouse for Sundance Catalogues. She started work at 3 a.m., worked until 8:45 a.m., attended classes from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., then went back to the warehouse for another three hours of work, and then she went home for dinner and homework. Two nights a week she returned to the school for evening study groups and wouldn’t get home until 10 p.m.
“It was very, very hard,” she says. “It was nine months of school. They put you on a fast track — a lot of homework and a lot of work and study in a compressed time. I was fortunate to have a very supportive husband. He’s my best friend and my rock.”
She served as a student mentor to the other students, most 20 years her junior. They accepted her and applauded her efforts to return to school.
“I never felt uncomfortable like I thought I would,” she says. “A lot of them actually called me ‘Mom.’ We’d do homework together. We did things with the school. We’d cook food and have holiday parties and go the library, and we were always texting each other.”
Kristie graduated with a 4.0 GPA and received the school’s Dream Award, presented annually to students who have “overcome extraordinary challenges to complete their post-secondary education.” It includes a $2,500 Everest College scholarship to pursue an advanced education program.
“That was a total surprise to me,” she says. “I felt there were better people there than me. There were so many young women there who are single moms and doing everything they can to improve themselves for their kids.”
Her advice to others is just about what you’d expect: “I tell people all the time — you should go back to school. You’re never too old.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]