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Nursing alumna brings health care background to role of county coroner

woman sits at a desk looking at one cell phone while talking on another

Growing up in the foster care system in Florida, Naida Rutherford found herself homeless with few prospects just two days after graduating from high school.

But the faith of a classmate’s parents and her own determination to get a degree ultimately led her to a career in nursing. In 2020, Rutherford became the first woman, the first person of color and the first person with a medical background to be elected Richland County coroner.

“I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up,” says Rutherford. “I just knew that I did not want to be like the people that I grew up around. I did not want to end up in jail. I did not want to have the disease of addiction if I could help it. And I wanted to get out of there. I knew that academics was probably going to be the only way that I would be able to do that.”

But there were difficulties in the beginning.

“I struggled through high school, mostly because I was dealing with very adult things at a young age,” Rutherford says. “I was able to maintain a GPA high enough to participate in sports. And that was a saving grace for me.”

A track teammate’s parents decided to take Rutherford with them to Benedict College in Columbia where their daughter had a track tryout.

“While I was an athlete, I was not going to be an Olympian, but I knew I had just enough talent to maybe do something,” Rutherford recalls. “My friend's mom believed enough in me to take me with her to South Carolina.”

Rutherford got her own tryout and made the team at Benedict, earning a scholarship and a bachelor’s degree in biology.

“I majored in biology because my roommate majored in biology, and I could use her books,” she says. “I had no idea what I wanted to do with that.”

Rutherford began her job search in the lucrative field of pharmaceutical sales, but found her lack of medical experience was keeping her from the position she wanted. She says after several rounds of fruitless job interviews, an interviewer suggested nursing school.

“Begrudgingly, I went to nursing school and it was the career choice that changed the trajectory of my life,” she says.

"When you come from a small town, a university the size of South Carolina can seem overwhelming. But there is family there. There are people there who want to see you grow. There are so many people who want to help you succeed. You just have to put in the work.”

woman stands in hospital scrubs with a stethoscope around her neck

Rutherford went to Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College to become a registered nurse and found the career she really wanted.

“What I love about nursing the most is solving the mystery,” she says. “You have to take what a patient tells you — and try to figure out what they're not saying — to help them. And that puzzle is what draws me to nursing. I always wanted to help figure it out. I wanted patients to understand what was happening to them.”

While working as a nurse, Rutherford earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from USC Upstate in 2012, then a master’s in clinical nursing from USC Columbia in 2015.

Her own experiences as a foster child at free clinics informed how Rutherford deals with patients — explaining everything she can along the way and discussing options for improving a patient’s health.

“As an African American who grew up with the Tuskegee syphilis study as a topic of conversation on why you don't trust health care providers, it became my mission as a nurse to show people who looked like me that there were people in health care who cared about them, who were not experimenting on them, that they could trust a health care provider.”

Rutherford was a nurse practitioner in the Columbia area before she decided to run for coroner. In South Carolina, coroners investigate suspicious deaths, including traumatic deaths and the deaths of children and vulnerable adults, as well as drug overdoses. Coroners also handle deaths that happen outside of a medical facility or that have happened within 24 hours of being seen in a medical facility.

“I think nursing is the perfect segue to being a coroner,” she says. “You have to show compassion and empathy and advocacy and communication, and you have to be an investigator.”

She credits her successful campaign in part to her patients who knew she would take care of the community the way she had taken care of them.

“It’s a very surreal thing sometimes to know that I'm the coroner,” she says. “But it really was a grassroots effort. And people showed up for me, and it really was my patients and their families who remembered the care, and they really just showed up and showed out for that election.”

She hopes that sharing information about causes of death can help people make healthier life choices.

“We have our Ask a Doctor series that brings a doctor into the community where we're seeing trends in deaths for things like hypertension and diabetes,” she says.

The informational sessions teach residents how to have better conversations with their own doctors, how to make good use of medical devices, such as machines for sleep apnea, and the importance of good maintenance for chronic conditions.

“The coroner's office is an office that most people don't pay attention to until they need it,” she says. “Your county coroner should be out in the community, working for the citizens who elected them to office.”

Rutherford has also started a cadet program for students in grades 9-12 to interest young people in the careers that support the work of a coroner’s office, including forensic entomology, anthropology, archaeology, anatomy and physiology.

Looking back on her time at USC, Rutherford says the mentorship of faculty in the nursing school, especially Stephanie Burgess, had a major impact on her life and career.

“I don't come from an area where I saw a lot of powerful women doing things like Stephanie Burgess was doing, and she is such an inspiration for me and a motivation,” Rutherford says. “When you come from a small town, a university the size of South Carolina can seem overwhelming. But there is family there. There are people there who want to see you grow. There are so many people who want to help you succeed. You just have to put in the work.”

Banner image: Photo by Ashley Miller/Carolina News & Reporter