Local nurse overcame homelessness to find her dream career

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FROM THE BOTTOM TO THE TOP

Jennifer Cole is the kind of person you feel like you can ask for help, and she’s known at Fresenius Kidney Care of Hilton Head for her infectious enthusiasm. As a clinical manager, she mentors coworkers and works with dialysis patients and their families. Dialysis is a time-intensive medical treatment that many people with kidney disease rely on to survive. The process involves cleaning the patient’s blood three times a week for hours at a time. Cole, who started as a nurse four years ago and then promoted to manager, makes time to sit down with each patient. Her unique ability to empathize with them comes from surviving struggles in her own life. 

Cole lost her father when she was 19, sparking what she calls a downward spiral in her life. While she was a student at Clemson University, she started drinking heavily and neglecting her schoolwork. After barely graduating, she moved to Savannah with her boyfriend — a relationship that wouldn’t last. Afterward, she found a room to rent in Bluffton, close to her job. But after the homeowner’s divorce led to problems with the house, Cole had to move out. With nowhere to go, she began living in her car.

Too embarrassed to call her family for help — and unwilling to go back to her boyfriend, who she said was controlling and uncaring — Cole found herself working a retail job and unable to pay the first and last month months in rent most apartment complexes required as a security deposit.

“I was unprepared for it when it happened,” Cole said, who was 25 at the time. “And I was in such a bad mental mindset.”

She didn’t tell her co-workers about her situation and tried to hide it. But she did eventually reach out to a vendor representative of the store where she worked.

“I called him every day to place our order,” Cole said. “So one day we started talking and I asked him if he knew anyone looking for a roommate.”

The next day he asked her more about it, and Cole admitted she had been living in her car for three months. But she’d been saving her money and thinking about her future.

“He said he would find me a roommate,” Cole said, “and he did.” A few days later, she moved into a nice house with two roommates. But those cold months in her car stuck with her.

While she was homeless, Cole listened to radio shows where listeners called in to share their stories and ask for support. She said hearing about these people facing addiction and chronic illness made her realize life is always a struggle. She was particularly inspired by a segment on the syndicated “Kidd Kraddick Morning Show” about chronically ill children and their families who receive free Disney vacations.

“They got a vacation from the hospital and medical treatments, and got to have good memories with their families,” Cole said. “And nurses would call in and volunteer to help on the trips.”

Those stories and her own experiences in the hospital made her think about nursing school.

“My father died in a hospital, and I never forgot the nurses who gave him unconditional love and care,” Cole said. Encouraged by one of her new roommates — who had dropped out and then gone back to college — Cole enrolled in the Technical College of the Lowcountry’s nursing program.

“TCL made it possible,” said Cole. The school paid almost all of her tuition and expenses, and her life found a new direction. Now, a decade later, Cole has been sober for seven years, is married to the roommate who encouraged her to go back to school, and she’s making a positive difference in the lives of the patients and employees at Fresenius Kidney Care Hilton Head.

“I come home from work every day grateful and happy,” said Cole. “I wake up every day so grateful to be alive. And I want to share that with others.”