May 20, 2005

Graduation 2005: Nursing Founder’s medalist beat long odds

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School of Nursing Founder’s medalist Candace Riehl celebrates with Dean Colleen Conway-Welch, Ph.D.
photo by Kats Barry

Graduation 2005: Nursing Founder’s medalist beat long odds

When the Founder's medal was placed around the neck of 42-year-old Candace Riehl, a graduate in the School of Nursing's Women's Health Nurse Practitioner Program, she celebrated more than just that moment. This marked the completion of a long journey that all started with the lasting impression of one nurse and the drive of a determined nurse to be.

Riehl became pregnant as a teenager and dropped out of high school. Not long after, she decided to enter the Army Reserve, where she served, with honors, for more than a decade. She left the military just before the first U.S. war in Iraq and worked at various jobs while going back to school to get her GED. During that time, she met and married her husband in St. Louis. The couple had a daughter after a difficult breech, Caesarean section. About a year later, Riehl picked up a job at a 7-Eleven store and soon decided she wanted more.

“I said to myself, 'I am smarter than this.'” She thought about what she would like to do with her life, and kept coming back to the experience she had as a young, pregnant teenager. She always remembered the nurse-midwife who cared for her at the free clinic where she delivered her first child. Riehl's tough second pregnancy was still very fresh in her mind when she realized her calling was to be a nurse-midwife.

“I knew I wanted this kind of care to be available to many people and I decided the only way to do that was to be a nurse,” she said. “I kept thinking 'a long journey starts with the first step.' I knew I had a long walk to take, I had to take the ACT tests, remedial math, remedial reading,” said Riehl. So she set out to conquer those small steps first. She earned an Associate of Applied Science in Nursing degree at St. Louis Community College in 1992 and went on to earn a certificate for Nurse-Midwifery at the Parkland School of Nurse-Midwifery in Dallas in 1995. She moved to Mayfield, Ky. in 1996, where she began her first clinical practice in Nurse-Midwifery, helping other women to have a positive birth experience. During her journey, Riehl and her husband also welcomed two more children into their family, both delivered by nurse-midwives.

Riehl began precepting Nurse-Midwifery students, many from right here at Vanderbilt in her clinical practice. “I was validating graduate students' skills and I realized I really ought to get a graduate degree, too,” said Riehl. After looking around at some programs, she found Vanderbilt was the only place that would allow her to pursue her degree while maintaining her full clinical practice and managing a family. She enrolled in the Women's Health Nurse Practitioner Program through the distance option, continued to deliver babies, and even precepted students, some from Vanderbilt, while she was one herself, as an adjunct faculty member of VUSN.

The woman who was once a high school dropout was now pulling a 4.0 at VUSN. “To have a 4.0 from Vanderbilt, it was such a huge accomplishment. I mean, I didn't even have a bachelor's degree when I started,” Riehl said.

Riehl thought her chance at becoming a Founder's medalist wasn't meant to be. She had forgotten about the application she submitted when her husband called her at work a few weeks ago. “He was shouting 'you did it, you did it!' and I was thinking ‘great, what did I do now,’ and he played the message for me,” said Riehl. “I was flabbergasted I was even a candidate,” she said. “I am so completely honored. Who would've ever thought? You can do it. Don't ever quit. Set your goals high, and keep your eyes on the prize,” beamed Riehl.

She hopes to continue to be a mentor for other nurse-midwives and is planning for her future — a future that could be spent with limited mobility. Riehl was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis in 1998. She has suffered two flare-ups since being diagnosed; both times she had to be hospitalized. But Riehl, practicing in Kentucky, says she's able to live a full life between relapses, and is now considering pursuing a doctoral degree, maybe even from Vanderbilt, where she can leave her own lasting impression on some other nurse in the making.