October 18, 2016

Breast Cancer Awareness Month a time of heartache, hope for nursing student

The loss of her mother to breast cancer sparked Jennifer Bail’s desire to help others through nursing research. 

Written by: Jimmy Creed

Media Contact: Adam Pope, arpope@uab.edu

For University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing Ph.D, student Jennifer Bail, the annual observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings with it many memories of her late mother, Judy Uhr, and a time when her life was headed in a completely different direction. 

Those memories take her back to the late 1990s and the successful first part of her professional career working in the missile defense industry for Teledyne Brown Engineering in Huntsville, Alabama. They also take Bail back to the diagnosis of her mother’s breast cancer — one that would change her life and career. 

“I had been at Teledyne Brown for about six months when my mother found out that her breast cancer had metastasized to her brain,” Bail said. “At that point, the oncologist really wanted her to have 24-hour care. With my being single at the time, they didn’t think I would be able to handle it, so they thought the best thing would be to put my mother in a nursing home.”

She vividly recalls the day she walked into the hospital room to find a social worker completing paperwork to send her mother to an assisted-living facility. 

judy uhrDespite the ravages of breast cancer, Judy Uhr still displays a smile and the Precious Moments figurine "Life is Worth Fighting For."“I said ‘No, that’s not what is going to happen. I will figure out a way, but I’m not going to do that,’” Bail said. “There was no thinking about it. I really just wanted to take care of my mother myself.”

The decisions that followed put Bail on a path to her life’s calling and proved a great gain for the nursing profession. 

Full-time employee, caregiver

Her first action was to talk with Tonya Maurice, her supervisor and friend at Teledyne Brown, and make an unusual request. 

She explained that she wanted and needed to take care of her mother, but she also needed to keep her full-time job and the health insurance benefits it provided. Maurice approached her superiors about the situation, and it was decided to allow Bail to work full-time from home so she could also serve as her mother’s primary caregiver. 

“The type of work she was doing was such that she could have flexible hours because it was more project-based,” said Maurice, now director of corporate relations for Intuitive Research and Technology Corp. in Huntsville. “At Teledyne, we allowed her to call in to meetings, and occasionally she would have to come to the office; but most of her work could be done via the internet or teleconference. 

“Jennifer has high standards, and even though she was having to take care of her mother, she still did an outstanding job. How she dealt with it all, I’m not sure; but she did.”

Over the course of the last nine months of her mother’s life and to this day, those closest to Bail have often said the same thing. 

A good man

Sumanth Bail had known the woman who would become his wife since 1996, but he truly got a glimpse into her soul while watching – and helping – her care for her mother over those final agonizing days. 

Together they watched as the disease ravaged Uhr, taking away her ability to walk, use the bathroom on her own or feed herself. Eventually it robbed her of the ability to even breathe on her own. 

“At that time we were not married, but he was very supportive,” Bail said. “He would come on Thursdays and take care of my mom so I could go to the office.”

In those times, Sumanth Bail and Uhr developed a bond based on their love for Jennifer. 

“Her mom took a liking toward me, especially as it became apparent that she was not going to live too long,” Sumanth Bail said. “She saw that I was good to Jennifer, and one of the things I would think a mom wants to know is that her daughter is with somebody good. I hope I helped ease her mind.”

Sumanth Bail was there for his girlfriend when the end came for Uhr on Sept. 5, 2001, at 55 years old. Five days later, as the tragic world events of 9/11 unfolded, Jennifer Bail was gripped with a sense that she was supposed to do something different with her life. 

It's never too late

The mid-course correction began with a decision to leave Teledyne Brown Engineering and the aerospace world after a 10-year career. Bail took up yoga and advanced to become a yoga teacher. Next she progressed to a certified health coach and owned her own business, Jennifer Bail Wellness. Then came the decision that still amazes people most. 

jennifer judy webJennifer Bail and mom JudyAt 40 years old, Bail decided to return to college to become a nurse and enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at the University of Alabama in Huntsville College of Nursing. 

“There’s never been a question of ‘no, you can’t do that,’” Sumanth Bail said. “It’s just ‘wow, you want to do that?’ She is the most optimistic person I have ever met. She truly believes that whatever you think will happen.”

After earning her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree with honors from UAH in May 2014 and discovering a love for research along the way, Bail set her sights on the UAB School of Nursing’s Ph.D. program. 

“We would go down to her brother’s place in Geneva County and would cross through Birmingham going back to Huntsville. She would look out and say, ‘That’s my school,’ and she had not yet gotten accepted into the UAB School of Nursing for her Ph.D.,” Sumanth Bail said. 

Changing lifestyle, changing life

When Bail took her first steps down the nursing trail, it was with the intent of becoming an oncology nurse and working at the bedside to care for cancer patients as she had done with her mother. Her mother’s illness also resulted in much introspection that led to other drastic changes in her and Sumanth’s lifestyles.

“Anybody who has lost a family member to breast cancer knows you start to have concerns about yourself and what you can do to reduce your risk factors,” Bail said. “I started eating healthier. I started exercising. I started doing yoga and meditation. I started feeling better, and I wanted to share that with other women. 

“And while I was very passionate about healthy living and quality of life, I felt like I did not have enough education. That is what drew me to nursing.”

While participating in a project as part of the UAH Honors College, Bail learned she had the talent and taste for research and decided she had found the way to best impact the people she most wanted to help. 

“We all have certain skills, and we should use those to their full extent,” Bail said. “I decided doing research was how I could best use my skills. I felt that I could touch so many more breast cancer survivors and make a difference in their quality of life that way.”

Bail reached out to UAB School of Nursing Professor and Associate Dean for Research Karen Meneses, Ph.D., who is also a world-renowned researcher in cancer survivorship. Soon Bail’s dream of making UAB “her school” came true. 

"A truly amazine story"

Meneses was thrilled to have a student of Bail’s caliber join the School’s Ph.D. program, even if her move came later in life.

“That is one of the greatest elements of the nursing profession,” Meneses said. “There are just so many different entry points, and Jennifer is clearly an example of someone who has been in a whole other career and then realized that this was her passion and where she wanted to make her future.

“One of our hallmarks at the UAB School of Nursing is we welcome all students. Wherever they want to go, we try to find opportunities for them and set up programs that are going to help them be successful.”

Bail has experienced that success in her coursework and as part of a research team headed up by Meneses that is examining speed-of-processing training as an intervention for women with breast cancer, specifically focusing on women who have cognitive changes as a result of treatment as well as aging. Bail set as her goal to recruit and enroll all 60 participants, and she was successful. 

Such diligence and attention to detail earned Bail a prestigious American Cancer Society Doctoral Degree Scholarship in Cancer Nursing — one of only six funded nationwide by ACS in 2016 — and she received Susan G. Komen Graduate Training in Disparities Research funding in 2015. All of it has been achieved with a passion and a drive that traces to a mother lost. 

“She has a truly amazing story,” Meneses said. “I think her story helps to power her passion for really outstanding care and for helping others who are family members or those close to survivors.”

Answering a call

“Something was calling me and telling me I could make a difference and help people,” Bail said.

Through her experiences, through her research and through her work in the community, Bail has learned that helping can often be as simple as listening to what breast cancer survivors have to say.

She has noted that many don’t want to confide in their family or friends because they don’t want to burden them. They often have great fear of recurrence, pain and fatigue. Many have difficulties with their memories that affect their work and home life. Many just need a shoulder to cry on.

She thinks back to the churning emotions her mother must have experienced as her life slowly drained away, and it motivates her to be there for others.

“I wish that somebody had taken the time to listen to my mom,” Bail said. “I realize now there were probably a lot of things she couldn’t say to me because I was too close, and she didn’t want to upset me. If she had had somebody she could have talked to about her concerns and fears, I think that would have given her a lot of peace.”

Her purpose in life

While Bail’s move may have shocked some at first, those who know her best didn’t have to think on it long to understand it. They also agree that entering the nursing profession was the absolute right choice for her.

“She’s finally found her purpose,” Maurice said.

Bail’s brother, Dan McCarty, who lived in Rhode Island at the time she was caring for their mother, recalls seeing the heavy load his sister bore and how the situation affected her, particularly near the end when hospice came to help.

“I think that made a big mark on her heart, just seeing what hospice did and how much they cared for our mom,” McCarty said.

McCarty also recalls how cancer has left many marks on their family over the years. It not only took their mother at 55, it took her twin sister at 57. Both donated their bodies to cancer research at UAB Hospital. A few years later, at age 62, their father died of skin cancer. McCarty’s mother-in-law was stricken by cancer as well.

So it did not surprise him that his sister wanted to go into nursing and focus on battling cancer. It just made him proud.

“It takes a very strong and determined person to make a decision like that, and she knew with all her heart it was what she wanted to do,” McCarty said. “She is a really caring person, and wants to make a difference in the world. It is definitely the right field for her.”

One survivor at a time

With a cheerfulness and exuberance that Meneses calls “inspiring,” Bail said her grand plan would be to “help improve quality of life for every single breast cancer survivor.”

Since that is a little beyond her control, she’ll be content to make her mark helping one survivor at a time.

“Sometimes it really is just touching one person at a time and knowing that, if you made a difference in that person’s life, you did change the world,” Bail said. “Even though I haven’t graduated yet, I feel like I am making that difference here every day.

“I made this change, I reached out to [Karen] Meneses and pursued coming here to get my Ph.D. and it has definitely been one of the best decisions I have made in my life.”

For more information about the UAB School of Nursing Ph.D. program, click here.