By Matt Skoufalos
Among the various responsibilities she’s enjoyed in a 35-year nursing career, Lori Wood has held direct-care, education and management positions. But no matter what assignment she’s undertaken, “My heart is with the critical care patients,” she said.
Wood entered the field in 1983, having completed a two-year nursing program at Valencia Community College. She started work in Florida, and moved to Georgia not long after, lured by incentives that would support her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.
“But I came to love critical care patients, and I didn’t go back and get my bachelor’s degree until I was 50 years old,” Wood said. “My family lives in Florida, and that was my biggest motive in getting my bachelor’s degree: future employment.”
At Piedmont Newnan Hospital in Newnan, Georgia, Wood started out in the intensive care unit before eventually transferring to the recovery room to recapture a few more of her weekend hours. But it was in the ICU, in December 2018, that she met 27-year-old Jonathan Pinkard.
Wood would come to learn that Pinkard had been in and out of area hospitals with chronic cardiac care needs for four months. He had been diagnosed with heart failure, mostly due to the complications related to managing his intravenous medication after discharge. Pinkard, who is on the autism spectrum, struggled with the difficulty of the orders.
“Each time the home health nurses came to check on him, his central line would be out, his medication would not be infusing, his blood pressure would be low, or his blood sugar would be low,” Wood said. “He just could not maintain or keep up his medications.”
Complicating matters for Pinkard, whenever he was discharged from a hospital, staff didn’t know where to take him. He had no family in the area. With only the help of his local church community, Pinkard ended up in shelters and hotels, and was inevitably readmitted soon after because he wasn’t able to follow the post-discharge plan himself.
“I had been trying, going from hospital to hospital, to a men’s shelter, to a hotel, with all that medication that I had,” Pinkard said. “Some information really overwhelmed me; they had to break it down.”
“I thought I was going to be on thin ice the time this all happened,” he said.
Eventually, Pinkard, who had been a candidate for heart transplant surgery, was removed from a list of prospective patients because he didn’t have anyone to help him recover after the procedure.
Reading this information in his chart, Wood was struck by his circumstances. She thought on it, talked with her family and eventually decided to become Pinkard’s temporary legal guardian so that she could help shepherd him through the process.
“After finding out about his diagnosis and current living situation, I felt sorry for him,” she said. “I couldn’t fathom the kind of position he was in.”
“My kids are basically raised,” Wood said. “I had space in my house. I am a nurse. I felt like I was in a position to help him out.”
Pinkard’s friend from church floated the idea to him, and got him transferred to Wood’s floor. The two began to develop a rapport to allow Pinkard to see if he was comfortable with the idea of Wood caring for him. From there, their relationship blossomed, and when it was time for Pinkard to undergo his surgery, Wood was with him every step of the way – so much so, that he nicknamed her “Mama” for the care with which she’s guided his five-month recovery.
“This lady right here is a miracle,” Pinkard said. “That’s all I can say about it. It’s just amazing. She’s a lifesaver.”
Born and raised just south of Columbus, Georgia, Pinkard came to the Newnan area in the course of working for the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, where he is about to enter his fifth year. Thanks to Wood’s intercession, he was expected to return to work in January 2020.
“My family has been no help at all, so it’s been between ‘Mama’ and my church family that’s been helping me with all this,” Pinkard said. “I really enjoy spending time with [Wood]. Really, it’s been a joy being with her.”
In the time they’ve shared together, the two have formed a tight bond over the little things. Early on in the process, Wood came home from the store to find Pinkard watching Family Feud, “and I thought, ‘This’ll be okay,’ ” she remembered. Both share a love of college football – although Pinkard is an Alabama fan, and Wood follows rival Georgia – and Pinkard’s even come around on The Hallmark Channel, thanks to Wood’s enjoyment of it.
“It was very easy to be around him because we had lots of things to talk about,” she said. “He’s very sweet. He’s very helpful around the house. He’s got a very giving heart.”
Pinkard hopes that people will enjoy their story not only as a positive tale of how he was helped by a generous stranger in a moment of need, but also as a jumping-off point for discussions about self-care and cardiac health.
“We need a whole lot of positive influence in today’s society,” he said. “It takes a village to work together. In 2020, I want to tell people my story, and I want to give them some tips on how to take care of their heart, and maintain their heart so they don’t have heart failure like I did. You can be healthy for a long period of time.”
Wood has drawn significant notoriety for her decision to care for Pinkard, including a commendation from her employer. She has no regrets in having done so, and she’s pleased to see him make a full recovery. Yet she said there’s a certain distance she observes from seeing the tale told in the third person.
“I don’t really identify that it’s me up there,” she said. “I’m not different from anybody else, I just felt led to help.”
Wood does understand why the story has such broad appeal.
“We’ve crossed over black-and-white boundaries, handicap boundaries, male-and-female boundaries, age boundaries, that a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do,” she said.
But to her, there’s a simpler explanation as to why it all worked out.
“If God put something in your heart, you need to follow Him and trust in the results,” she said.