Known for Compassion

Grace Thornton Fall 2020, Learning Leave a Comment

Dr. Sarah Witherspoon ’94 & ’96 

Dr. Sarah Witherspoon ’94 & ’96 says she loves to read people. She starts doing that the minute students walk into her classroom on the first day of a new semester — and she lets them know it’s happening. 

But she says that shouldn’t make them feel nervous — if anything, she hopes it makes them feel known and cared for. She wants them to know she’s listening and on their team. 

“One thing about my profession and my calling that I love — when students find out I’m genuinely concerned about them as students, some of my students will come and talk to me about family issues,” Witherspoon said. 

She likes to walk alongside them through those issues, and she continues to think about and pray for those students after they’ve moved on from her psychiatric nursing class. 

And with all her students over the years, Witherspoon has loved watching for the “aha” moments they’ll inevitably have at some point during the semester. She had one herself years ago when she was working as the admission intake nurse at Searcy Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Mount Vernon, Alabama. 

“I watched the nurses and saw what they were doing in nursing care, and I thought, ‘I can do that,’” she said. 

So Witherspoon went back to school, became an LPN, then got her associate’s degree in nursing. From there, she took her faith in God and compassion for people through the doors of Searcy for 27 years. She says from her very first “aha” moment, she’s been comfortable working in the mental health arena. 

“I’ve always respected their mental illness because there are chemical imbalances and they don’t know what they’re doing. They cannot control it,” she said. “It bothers me today that there’s a stigma on mental illness. People are afraid of the unknown.” 

So she teaches her students that mental health patients are people first. 

“You’re not defined by your mental condition, just like a person who has cardiology problems or diabetes isn’t defined by that,” she said. 

Over the years, the mental health profession has changed, and so has Witherspoon. She served as Legal Nurse Consultant for the State of Alabama for several years and was also certified as a Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse. A mother and grandmother, too, she graduated with her Ph.D. at age 60 while working full-time at UM. 

And now after teaching for 17 years, she serves as dean of the School of Nursing — UM’s first African-American dean. 

Madison Taylor, a May 2020 UM graduate, said her class was lucky to have Witherspoon as both professor and dean. 

“Dr. Witherspoon did a fabulous job of making class fun, but also making it important. She taught us how to have compassion for those suffering from mental illness and how to practice nonjudgmental holistic care,” Taylor said. “She also orchestrated eye-opening clinical experiences for us that helped me see psychiatric nursing in a whole different light. I feel blessed to have been taught by such a great leader, and I know I’m going to be a better nurse because of it.” 

Holley McCarroll, another May 2020 graduate, called Witherspoon “one of a kind.” 

“She is dedicated to her students because she loves to see us achieve our dreams,” McCarroll said. “I will always remember to have confidence, determination and never to give up because of her.” 

WORDS TO LIVE BY: 

“Be careful how you treat people. You don’t know where they are or what circumstances are happening in their lives.”

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Grace Thornton

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