Grandmothers' health struggles inspire nurse-scientist to help others

May 13, 2021
Joy Buie. Photo by Sarah Pack
Joy Buie. Photo by Sarah Pack

When Joy Buie was growing up in Rock Hill, South Carolina, she lost a beloved family member.

“My paternal grandmother had diabetes, hypertension, quadruple bypass heart surgery and suspected undiagnosed lupus. At the time of her death, she was a double leg amputee and was only 60 years old.”

Buie, 8 years old at the time, saw the devastating impact of that death on her father. “I’d never seen him cry, but the day that his mother died, he slid to the floor in tears after receiving the news. It really had an impact on me because I saw my hero become extremely vulnerable and sad.”

Elsie Jones, grandmother of CON graduate Joy Buie 
Elsie Jones, Buie's grandmother, died at 60.

As she grew up, Buie noticed that her other grandmother, who also had diabetes, was in much better health. And she realized the reason for that. “My maternal grandmother was diligent about adjusting her lifestyle and adopting healthy behaviors that allowed her to successfully manage her diabetes. As a result, she lived to be well over 80 years old.”

That contrast between her grandmothers, with its life-or-death implications, helped set Buie on a path to becoming a nurse-scientist. As she graduates from the College of Nursing at the Medical University of South Carolina, she’s ready to focus on studying and solving differences in health outcomes caused by disadvantages linked to race, ethnicity and other factors.

Buie’s journey to MUSC began when she was a Biological Sciences major and Microbiology minor at Clemson University. She worked in an Immunology lab at Clemson and decided to apply to the Summer Undergraduate Research Program at MUSC, a ten-week program that encourages students to go to graduate school and gives them some of the skills they’ll need for future success.

Perry Halushka, M.D., Ph.D., Dean Emeritus of the College of Graduate Studies and Distinguished University Professor, got to know Buie there. “During her summer in the laboratory, I served as her co-mentor.  It was clear that Joy was a very bright, enthusiastic and driven student. It was because of that that we encouraged her to apply to graduate school, to get a Ph.D. in the Biomedical Sciences.”

“That was kind of it for me,” Buie said. “I decided that I needed to do this. I received a Master's in Clinical Research before I finished my Ph.D., then I did a post-doctoral fellowship in a basic science laboratory studying the role of epigenetics in sepsis that was funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.”

Tommie Mae Davis, grandmother of CON graduate Joy Buie 
Tommie Mae Davis, Buie's maternal grandmother.

Halushka served as her mentor during that post-doctoral fellowship, too. “She once again demonstrated her enthusiasm, drive and tenacity, taking on a very challenging project. We had several conversations about her desire to work with patients. After discussions with several people, she chose to go to nursing school.”

Buie, who already received a career development grant to transition to becoming a faculty member, became a student again. “It was very difficult at first, just getting back into the mindset of a student and really leaning into the process to learn new information was challenging.”

But once she settled in, she thrived. “I love working with patients and providing care to them in the hospital was definitely a rewarding experience. There are many times where we, as scientists, are working in the laboratory and we don't really see the direct impact of our work on people. But in the clinical setting, you're having direct patient contact, and you see the immediate results of your work.”

Her clinical settings in the College of Nursing included COVID-19 testing sites, where she took nasal swabs from people who might have been infected with the coronavirus. She had a husband and child at home, and she didn’t want to get any of them sick.

“I was like, okay, I can do this. I have this respirator on, I trust the science behind it and the power of God to protect me. I'll be okay. So I did what I had to do, and that's kind of been my life’s story. I do what I need to do in order to get the results I want.”

Halushka isn’t surprised by Buie’s success. “She has a talent for relating to people that makes her an ideal person to work with individuals. A degree in nursing is the perfect fit for Joy. She will bring much credit to the profession and has the ability to contribute significantly to the health and well-being of individuals through her passion, caring and clinical research.”

Her current research includes a study looking at the association between mental stress and hypertension. It’s funded by the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke. “With that grant, I am doing what I consider my life's work.”

The grant provides money for a faculty position. “I’m applying for jobs while simultaneously launching my project,” Buie said.

She credits her family and her faith with allowing her to continue to multi-task. Moreover,  her nursing degree has already opened new doors to help others. “I’ve been able to identify unmet needs and I have some new ideas about how to expand my current research program.”

About the Author

Helen Adams

Keywords: Education