Woman in declining health gets to see son graduate early

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 28, 2012

By Emily Ford
eford@salisburypost.com SALISBURY — Like most high school graduations, the ceremony featured a cap and gown, diploma and an inspirational speech.
But when North Rowan High School principal Darrell McDowell spoke about the promise of the future, his words were bittersweet.
Certainly, senior Jesse Pinkston — an accomplished student-athlete bound for college in the fall — has a bright future ahead of him.
Almost as certainly, Jesse will embark on that future without his mother.
Jesse and his father, with help from Rowan-Regional Medical Center, on Monday granted Harriet Pinkston’s dying wish — to see her only child receive a diploma.
Harriet is not expected to live to watch Jesse walk across the stage with his classmates.
So, with the same determination that has spurred Harriet’s remarkable survival despite decades of health crises, family members, hospital staff and school officials found a way to bring the graduation ceremony to her.
“She has always said her one desire was to see her son graduate,” said Dr. Amy Wilson, who has treated Harriet for eight years. “When it became apparent she was not going to get better, the question became, what can we do to make that happen?”
The portable ventilator keeping Harriet alive made the only sound as Jesse walked into the hospital chapel, wearing a cap and gown in North’s green and yellow colors.
Dressed up and wearing earrings loaned last-minute from ICU nurse manager Cathy Lingle, Harriet watched the brief ceremony from a wheeled hospital recliner.
Unable to speak but alert, Harriet wiped her eyes and clasped husband Steve Pinkston’s hand.
Relatives and friends filled the small chapel to overflowing, and Harriet’s nurses kept close watch on their patient.
With all the pomp and circumstance usually reserved for an auditorium, McDowell bestowed a ceremonial diploma upon Jesse. After a lengthy handshake to allow for numerous photographs, McDowell added something most graduates don’t receive from their principal — a tearful bear hug.
“What a gift,” hospital Chaplain James Cook whispered as Jesse bent over his mother to share a quiet moment and accept her congratulations.
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While tears flowed throughout the ceremony, the underlying grief could not overtake the unusual event’s joyous spirit. It was the first high school graduation held in the hospital chapel.
“We are celebrating today,” Wilson said.
Celebrating what a great mom Harriet has been, the physician said, and what a wonderful young man Jesse has become.
Now 55, Harriet has suffered a bewildering array of health problems her entire adult life.
“She has walked a medical minefield from the time she was 18 or 20,” sister Robin Robinson said.
Her five siblings could not count the number of surgeries Harriet has endured over the years. Plagued by cardiac and pulmonary issues, Harriet has only one working lung and even underwent an emergency appendectomy while seven months pregnant with Jesse.
She fought back death three times, resuscitated by medical personnel after her heart stopped.
Harriet was not expected to survive her most recent surgery on Jan. 29, her sisters said.
“I have never seen anybody with a greater will to live,” the surgeon told Harriet’s siblings when he emerged from the operating room.
The procedure extended her life, allowing her to witness Monday’s graduation.
The closeknit family wept at the thought of saying goodbye but also out of gratitude for Rowan Regional and North Rowan.
“A lot of good people did a lot of good things to make this happen,” Steve Pinkston said.
Steve, who relatives say rarely leaves his wife’s side, pulled together the ceremony in three days.
He contacted North officials on Friday, after doctors at Forsyth Medical Center determined Harriet’s condition was incurable. She returned to Rowan-Regional at her request.
McDowell and North Rowan senior counselor Bill Tenborg responded immediately, Steve said, willing to make the event happen. Former North principal Rodney Bass also attended the ceremony, as well as Jesse’s golf coach and swim coach-calculus teacher.
Steve then approached Rowan-Regional and the team of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists who have cared for Harriet since she was hospitalized Jan. 2.
Assistance and coordination came from Harriet’s sisters — Robinson, Cathy Faucette, Lisa Houston and Angie Smith, as well as brother Lynn Hillard.
But without Wilson, none of it could have happened, the family said.
“Not only is she a phenomenal physician, but she’s also a compassionate physician,” Lingle said.
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Until she was hospitalized, Harriet worked as a secretary for Landmark Church. An active North Rowan Booster Club member, Harriet has loved helping others.
“We have to be thankful for the days we did have,” Faucette said. “And all the family traditions that she was able to participate in that we will continue.”
While Smith’s husband Matt battled cancer, Harriet remained positive and encouraging. During his last weeks, she would call every day to see what he was hungry for and bring it by for lunch.
The night he passed away, Harriet arrived to entertain the couple’s four young children upstairs so they were unaware of events happening downstairs, Smith said.
Before their father, Benny Hillard, died in January 2011, Harriet accompanied him to doctor’s appointments, fixed meals, grocery shopped and provided encouragement.
“She is such an awesome, unique individual,” Smith said. “And what a fortunate person I am to have her as my sister.”
Jesse has inherited many of Harriet’s best qualities, Steve said.
Patience. Intelligence. And a “quiet determination” that will serve the future mechanical engineer well.
“And he has a lot of humor,” Steve said. “Just like his mom.”
Guests who watched Jesse marveled at his poise. Mature beyond his years, the high school student will face a sadness most 17-year-olds can’t begin to imagine.
But on Monday, walking dry-eyed across the makeshift stage in front of his mother, Jesse said he felt a sense of pride.
“More than you know,” he said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.