As director of student services for those pursuing bachelor’s degrees at Illinois State University’s School of Social Work, Jerey McKinney works to emphasize the mental fortitude students will need for their chosen profession.
“I think it’s important for them to know that there needs to be an element of resiliency,” said McKinney. A licensed clinical social worker, she understands the path for those recovering from long-term trauma. “After the initial event, it is up to those who are impacted to give themselves grace and rely on their identified supports in figuring out what works for them.”
Along with professional know-how, McKinney can speak from experience with her own diagnosis of spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), in which a tear forms in a blood vessel in the heart. Though she does not always offer her personal story to students, McKinney finds her experiences can offer hope to students who suffer chronic illnesses and speak to the mental and emotional demands future social workers will need during their careers.
“I think it can give my students a sense of reality,” said McKinney. “When they are out in the field and come across someone who has been through so much, there isn’t time to refer to a textbook for the answers. It’s then they need to show up, be empathetic, and be authentic. I hope that’s what I do every day.”
McKinney’s journey began in 2011, when she was six months pregnant and walking up a set of stairs. “I hit the 12th step, and bam, it suddenly felt like my heart was going to explode,” said McKinney, who was 33 years old at the time. Her husband, Keon, drove her to the hospital. “Once they confirmed it was a heart attack, ER doctors filled the room,” she said. Because she was pregnant, several of the procedures had to be performed without anesthesia. “They patched me up and saved the baby.”
After several weeks of intense monitoring by doctors, McKinney’s daughter, Kendall, was born two months premature. “She was only three pounds. They placed her in an incubator,” said McKinney. “I only got to hold her every three hours.”
Six days after Kendall was born, McKinney suffered another heart attack, this time in the hospital nursery. She was rushed down to the ER, and then admitted to the intensive care unit. “My biggest concern is that Kendall was in an entirely separate wing of the hospital. And they wouldn’t let me see her,” said McKinney. “Though if you know me, you know I am usually persistent enough to get my way.”
Doctors then diagnosed McKinney with SCAD. Her family, friends, church congregation, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters, and work colleagues formed a protective circle around McKinney. “I felt so loved” she said with a huge smile and noted her gratitude for the support they offered in the following weeks. That circle of support is vital for social work students to understand. “There is an element of vulnerability that is key to being able to ask for help and rely on your support system.”
After she recovered and her daughter was able to come home, McKinney said the reality of what was needed could be daunting. “My husband and I were exhausted—a lot—but we decided we were not going to let this stop us.”
McKinney suffered two more heart attacks, one when Kendall was 2 years old, and a second when she was in the hospital recovering. “I’m quite the topic of conference presentations for my cardiologist,” she said dryly.
Kendall, now 7 years old, joined the conversation with a hello. McKinney pulled her closer “What do you do if mommy is hurting?” she asked the child on her lap. “Call 9-1-1,” said Kendall. “And what do you tell them?” McKinney asked again. “That mommy is having a heart attack,” said the little girl without a hint of dismay. McKinney looked back. “She’s known that since she was 3.”
McKinney has found a new voice with her story. She is the vice president of the board for the Illinois Heart and Lung Foundation. “It’s not really my story,” she said, noting her faith pulled her through tough times. “I put myself in the hands of God, so it’s His story and glory.” She finds her personal experience can strengthen students’ understanding of what their future clients might need. “I try to be cognizant of what I’m sharing and why I’m sharing it,” she said, adding, “I do find it better at times to be an open book.”