Published 12:00 am Monday, January 13, 2014

FAITH — Kimber Fink always wanted to be a nurse. But because she is hearing impaired, she was dissuaded by two large universities to apply for nursing school.

Kimber stands 6 feet 1 inches. She’s not easily intimidated. She persevered, and recently graduated from the Cabarrus College of Health Sciences.

Her biggest cheerleader throughout her quest has been her grandfather and next-door neighbor, Cliff Bernhardt. He lost his right arm in an accident in 1967. Neither he nor his granddaughter considers themselves handicapped.

When he heard of his granddaughter’s diagnosis, he says, “It didn’t bother me that much. I knew you could get by and live and continue on. There’s no such word as ‘handicapped.’ I just encouraged her.”

“It’s hard for me to sit here and say I have a handicap,” says Kimber, 23. “I’ve lived with it all my life.”

Even though she weighed nearly 8 pounds when she was born, Kimber spent time in the NICU when she was born because of problems with her lungs, says her mom, Leigh Ann Fink. She was on oxygen for nine months, and medication she was given may have caused her hearing loss. She’d had a normal hearing test at birth.

When Kimber was about 3, her mother was singing to her.

“I was right up in her face, and I kinda got right up against her ear,” Leigh Ann says. “I could tell she was really listening to me, and I thought, this child can’t hear.”

Kimber was fitted for hearing aids in both ears, and began speech therapy. With hearing aids, her hearing is almost normal in low-pitch sounds, but she can’t hear some high-pitch sounds at all. She wore an auditory trainer in a pouch around her waist to allow her to hear her teachers, who spoke through a microphone.

“I really didn’t like the attention being brought to me,” Kimber remembers. “Anything that made me different and stand out, I didn’t like.”

Leigh Ann sometimes peeked into Kimber’s speech therapy sessions. She was surprised to find Kimber had switched places with her teacher — it was the only way she’d cooperate. Same thing with the hearing-aid employee when she went for hearing checks.

By middle school, Kimber had stopped speech therapy, because she didn’t like being pulled out of class. She reads lips extremely well — so much so that you don’t even realize she’s doing it.

“People didn’t expect me to do well in school,” Kimber says. “I was gonna prove people wrong.”

Kimber graduated from Salisbury High School in 2009 with an A average, and went to college with the intention of applying for nursing school. “My advisor pretty much told me I’d be wasting my time because they would deny me,” Kimber says. She transferred to another college closer to home. Same thing.

But she’d done an internship at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center in labor and delivery and loved it.

“You’re never by yourself,” Kimber says. “The alarms are very loud. I knew I could do it.”

She was taking a certified nursing assistant course at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, and her instructor worked at Cabarrus College of Health Sciences. Kimber applied and was accepted. In December, she received an associate’s degree in nursing.

Later this month, she’ll start an online program with Winston-Salem State University to receive a BSN degree.

She’s had a second interview for a behavioral health nursing job, although ultimately she’d like a job in labor and delivery. She believes her hearing loss will make her a better nurse.

“I know what it’s like to have a disability,” she says. “It gives me a sense of compassion for people who are different. I’ve always stood up for people who have been picked on.”

Cliff knows she’ll have no problems on the job.

“When she says take a pill,” he says, “you take a pill.”

Growing up, Kimber played softball. She loves sports and is a big fan of Carolina, ECU and the Yankees.

Like other young people her age, she loves social media. Being hearing impaired means she doesn’t miss a thing.

“Texting is the greatest invention,” Kimber says, “and if somebody emails me, I’m their best friend.”

She’s participated in numerous mission trips with her church, ticking off a list of 11 places where they’ve gone to do home renovations.

“She doesn’t mind work,” Cliff says.

She also doesn’t mind taking care of her granddaddy. Cliff fell right before Christmas and ended up in ICU, missing her capping ceremony. It was just about the longest two hours of Kimber’s life, she says. But she and Cliff have had a chance to watch a DVD of that ceremony and her graduation.

“There wasn’t a chance for me to feel sorry for myself,” Kimber says of her growing up years.

“I knew she could do it if she wanted to do it,” Cliff says of her nursing career.

He adds, “She’s tough.”

“I have a lot of stubborn people in my family,” she says, looking over at her grandmother, Marian Bernhardt, Cliff’s wife of 61 years.

“I’ll admit, I’m stubborn,” Marian says, “and so are you.”

She adds, “We’re very proud of her. It’s not an easy profession.”

Now all Kimber needs is that first job.

“I’m excited,” she says. “I’m ready to start. I have RN behind my name, but I don’t feel like a nurse yet.”

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.