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South Carolina Honors College

The Heart of a Nurse

By Aïda Rogers

For Marty McGirt Hucks, Halloween 1986 marked the end of one life and the beginning of another. Until almost midnight, she’d been a typical college freshman, cruising in her costume with three friends before dropping them off for the weekend. But a tire in her 1971 VW Bug blew out, causing the car to roll over I-20, throwing her friend out in the middle of oncoming traffic. In the pouring rain, her friend—incapacitated from a broken leg—lay helpless as a semi bore down upon her. Hucks and her buddies managed to drag her back to the side of the road, and then something unforgettable happened.

“A nurse stopped and calmed us down until EMS came and she was gone,” Hucks recounts. “I never stopped to thank her.”

But she never forgot how calm the nurse was amidst the chaos, and it wasn’t long before Hucks, Honors ’90, declared nursing her major. Now she’s the one who ministers to patients of all kinds and in all places, and to the student nurses she teaches as an assistant professor of nursing at Francis Marion University in Florence. With a master’s in nursing from USC, along with certifications in parish nursing from St. Louis University and in online instruction from Central Michigan University, Hucks says she’s still learning – and mostly from her patients.

“I remember one who died so gracefully. In a way it taught you how to live, her strength and grace at the end. She accepted how it was going to be, and made things right with the people she needed to make things right with.”

A Columbia native, Hucks never wanted to live in a city smaller than her hometown. Her thinking changed her senior year at USC. Visiting patients in their homes in rural Kershaw County for her community health rotation, she observed the close-knit relationships small-town people enjoyed. It was similar to the relationships she noticed during the fall semester in devastated McClellanville, where she and her nursing classmates and professors went to help after Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina. Tearing out wet carpet and ruined furniture, scrubbing walls with bleach and helping the people who hadn’t left, Hucks realized she’d found even more purpose in her profession through disaster nursing.

“There were boats on top of houses, the road was covered with sand and mud,” she recalls. “It was like a grief thing—disbelief at first, and when you process it a little later on, maybe a little guilt: ‘Why was I not affected more?’ I think some people never got back into their homes.”

That experience influenced her to join the Medical Reserve Corps, a group of South Carolina volunteers who help after disasters. During the 2015 flood, Hucks and other MRC nurses visited rural areas, giving tetanus shots. Soon they will be going door to door in vulnerable Horry and Georgetown county neighborhoods, helping residents make hurricane evacuation plans.

Marriage took Hucks to Florence, where she practices part-time as a family nurse practitioner when she’s not teaching. As an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, she’s presented in England as an Oxford University Round Table delegate—her paper was on STDs—and she’s led students on trips to study health care systems in that country and Germany. She and her students also have practiced “jungle medicine” in Belize, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic and Thailand. In other countries, she says it’s critical to be respectful.

“You don’t go in and say, ‘We know best.’ You work beside the health care workers there and become acquainted with their system and work together in ways that are culturally appropriate. In Belize, I found the group before us had donated a defibrillator, but nobody knew how to turn it on and it didn’t have batteries that worked. You have to be very intentional when you go in to a place. You don’t want to leave feeling better about yourself but not make changes that are sustainable.”

Back home in Florence, after 27 years, she’s come to know and treat generations of the same families.

“I love that part of it,” she says, recalling one Christmas Eve she saved a patient from going to the ER by removing her stitches at home. “If I’m walking through Harris Teeter, they’ll stop me on the cat food aisle and say, ‘Take a look at my gout.’ So you’re always on call. But I love it. It goes back to that relationship. They trust you. Some people would say I don’t have good boundaries, but it doesn’t bother me.”

More from Marty

After 27 years in nursing, Marty Hucks has some advice about maintaining good health. What are her best suggestions? “Exercise, and watch the sugar. There’s so much hidden sugar in foods now. Everything in moderation.”

For exercise, Hucks does something aerobic 30 minutes a day, and practices yoga twice weekly.  For relaxation, she reads, hikes, kayaks, plays the piano and sings in her church choir.

Hucks has been much honored. She’s been recognized by USC’s College of Nursing as a 2004 Amy V. Cockcroft Nursing Fellow, and by the South Carolina Nurses Foundation as a 2008 recipient of the Palmetto Gold Award. But her non-nursing Honors courses have been helpful in her career. What did they teach her? “Not to be judgmental. To respect the opinions of others. Most patients just want to be heard and have a chance to tell their story. That’s part of the healing process, and they need to have someone to listen to what’s being told.”

As for retirement, Hucks envisions continuing her work in parish nursing. She likes the English “district nursing” model, in which nurses coordinate health services in the neighborhood surrounding a church. Her choice of where she might practice? McClellanville, where she worked as a student nurse her senior year at Carolina.

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