Kim Briggs recalled her first-grade teacher occasionally asking her to help open a door for another student who wore braces on her legs.
As a kid, Briggs had no trouble opening the heavy bathroom doors at Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh. The doors were a struggle, however, for her classmate who had a physical impairment.
“So, we would help her,” Briggs said. “That was sort of my first memory of thinking I wouldn’t mind helping people, and nursing is what I viewed as being able to help others.”
Briggs spoke about her extensive nursing career after taking a tour of the Nursing and Instructional Building (NIB), which has been open for one year on UNC Greensboro’s campus. Only a few weeks earlier, she had retired after 41 years as a nurse in North Carolina.
Other than a quick drive through campus, Briggs, who earned her bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) from UNCG in 1980, hadn’t been back to the university in at least 15 years. It was a homecoming for her.
It came thanks to a letter her husband sent School of Nursing Dean Debra Barksdale in late November without his wife’s knowledge.
“I’ve been still saying it up until this moment, that I just wanted to kind of quietly leave,” Briggs said about her retirement. “But he’s obviously not going to let me do that.”
As Briggs was preparing to retire on Dec. 15, her husband, Kennon Briggs, the former chair of the Board of Trustees at UNC Asheville, wrote a letter to Barksdale.
In his letter, he informed Barksdale about Briggs’ journey as a nurse, going from being a first-generation student at UNCG to caring for patients at hospitals across the state.
“My wife is my hero, and I somehow wanted to let you know what an incredible person and alumna that Kim Newsom Briggs is, in no small part because of the Nursing School that you now lead,” he wrote.
After reading the letter, Barksdale invited Briggs to lunch and to return to UNCG, so she could tour the NIB. The building is significantly larger and more state-of-the-art than what she saw as a nursing student taking classes inside the Margaret C. Moore Building in the late Seventies.
“UNCG did prepare me to look outside the box, and it was about critical thinking and being organized. Nurses that I worked with who were community college graduates believed they received more hands-on experience,” Briggs said. “I believe that what I learned at UNCG prepared me for the actual practice of nursing and the ability to learn quickly, be professional, and safe.
“Learning is ongoing. We can never know everything. We need to know when and how to ask questions or seek answers as necessary. Medicine is forever changing, and we need to be prepared to seek knowledge for the whole of our career.”
Briggs grew up on her family’s cotton and tobacco farm in Cary. While her mother hated hospitals and encouraged her to become a teacher, Briggs decided to earn her BSN from UNCG.
In 1976, she arrived on campus as a shy, quiet freshman who felt uncomfortable answering questions in class for fear of being wrong. She grew as a person while in the School of Nursing.
Briggs said she initially had a nursing instructor who was particularly hard on her. The instructor even asked Briggs if she was sure she wanted to be a nurse.
Briggs said her interactions with the instructor caused her to lose confidence in herself. She carried that with her until she had the late Doris Armenaki as a professor in the School of Nursing.
Armenaki helped Briggs during her clinical rotations and gave her some much-needed encouragement.
“She kind of knew what the other professor had told her, and I knew that she knew because we’d had a conference about it and what I needed to improve on, and I was trying to do that,” Briggs said. “And then so at the beginning of working with Armenaki, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, another whole semester of trying to prove I could do this.’
“And probably after three or four weeks, she was like ‘You know, you’re fine.’”
Over the next four decades, Briggs established herself as a nurse while working in critical care, same-day surgery, and oncology units at hospitals in Chapel Hill, New Bern, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Wilmington.
Briggs spent 23 years waking up at 4 a.m. and preparing patients at 5 a.m. to have surgery on everything from their eyes to their lungs and kidneys to orthopedics. The early mornings allowed her to be available for her three daughters later in the day.
Briggs said retiring last month was “bittersweet,” but it gave her the opportunity to finally return to the School of Nursing. She’s also expecting her first grandchild in March.
“This is very exciting to be at my alma mater today and to see this amazing building and to remember what UNCG did for my nursing career and the life it helped me have,” Briggs said.
Story and photography by Alex Abrams, the School of Nursing