Holly Cochran will talk to you with a soft, classic southern lilt, readily describing herself as a good ol' Glynn County country girl, living with her husband, Tony, in the village of Thalmann, a proverbial stone's throw or two from Brantley County.
Talk with her for a while, and you'll soon find a drive she has long demonstrated to overcome the challenges in her life. Tonight, Cochran will receive her Bachelors of Nursing degree at College of Coastal Georgia's graduation ceremony — an accomplishment that took her several years.
"This is not the end of a chapter, but about a new chapter," said Cochran, 46. "It's what I've looked forward to."
Yet she has had to endure many family challenges along the way. Nearly eight years ago, her toddler grandson, Joshua, was mauled and severely injured by a dog. He continues to complete his recovery. Cochran lost her sister to cancer about three years ago and has been assisting her mother, who encountered heart problems a few months ago.
Yet Cochran has held on to her determination to earn her degree. At the CCGA campus Tuesday afternoon, she and Lydia Watkins frequently broke out in gleeful, joyful laughter — the college student on the verge of graduation and the professor and administrator who together radiated with warmth that comes from an emerging friendship.
Watkins, an assistant professor and the BSN program coordinator, has watched Cochran's efforts with growing admiration of the student's humbleness and the empathy Cochran has brought to her clinical work. She also has demonstrated an exceptional academic record.
Earlier this semester, Cochran had taken a national exam as a measure of the coursework she had mastered. A score more than 900 is very good. Cochran had earned a 1200, but had no clue what that meant.
Watkins told her then: "You don't understand how good this is. This is the best I've ever seen, and I didn't even know anybody could score this high. You rocked it."
Cochran was raising her three children as a young woman and helped out Tony in the family's carpet store. As a teenager, she had taken some basic nursing classes at Glynn Academy, and "It lingered, and I always wanted to go back to school."
Nearly eight years ago, a thrilled Cochran had just gotten a letter of acceptance to CCGA's then-associate's degree of nursing program. The next day Cochran was horrified to learn that Joshua, then 15-months-old, had the side of his face ripped off by a dog attack. She accompanied the boy on medical flights to Savannah and then to hospitals in Atlanta for more extended treatment.
For the next three months, Cochran never left Joshua's side. She received certification so she could participate in ongoing tracheotomy procedures.
"I really became his nurse," Cochran said. "I remember some of the nurses would say, 'You are so good with him.' But I couldn't think of having it any other way. You just have to go through it — how life changed for him and everybody involved."
After they returned to Brunswick, Cochran began to take some core courses. Joshua's health has improved, and he attends school at Heritage Christian Academy. Still, Cochran soon will join him at the Shriner's Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, where Joshua will receive his 30th surgery.
In late 2013, Cochran was accepted into CCGA's BSN program and had completed two of four semesters when her sister, Dorene Chapman, received a cancer diagnosis. Cochran accepted a medical hardship, enabling her to spend time with her sister, who would later lose her battle.
During that period, Cochran remained in contact with Watkins, getting information on the work she needed to do to retain coursework she had already completed. She returned to the campus last fall. Joshua remains at her home, and she also has custody of her two other grandchildren.
Cochran's mother, Lawanna Howard, is doing much better, and undeterred, Cochran has juggled it all throughout the final semesters. She was starting to believe that graduation would arrive and sure enough, she's just a few hours away.
But first, she participated in the nursing school's pinning ceremony on Wednesday.
When Cochran arrived on campus last fall, "I noticed how she looked different," Watkins said, "knowing what she had been through and how much she wanted to be a nurse. I was just so proud of her when she walked into the room."
Watkins always has recognized that her friend would make a great nurse. With all the adversity Cochran has overcome, "She will make a better nurse," Watkins said.
The degree is a culmination of all the work, Cochran said. She doesn't know yet which nursing area she will choose. Cochran won't forget the efforts of Watkins and another professor, Nicole Masano, who supported her and cheered her on.
"If I'm in the hospital and Holly walks in the room, I know I'll be in good hands," Watkins said with a grin.
"I'll take care of you," Cochran said and smiled back.
PHOTO by Boibby Haven
Holly Cochran, foreground, who will graduate tonight from College of Coastal Georgia's School of Nursing, is joined by Lydia Watkins, assistant professor of nursing and BSN coordinator, left, and Patricia Kraft, dean of nursing and health sciences, Southeast Georgia Health System.