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82-year-old nurse showed resilience through grief to find life full of joy

Shirley Willis started nursing school in her mid 40's, when tragedy struck her family twice.(Photo credit: John Le, WLOS)

News 13's Person of the Week Shirley Willis emerged from the depths of sorrow to find joy.

"Nursing is the most rewarding job I've ever had," she said recently in the darkness of early morning.

She's a source of light on the overnight shift at Universal Healthcare in Fletcher. Willis said her job never gets old, even as she prepares to turn 82 on Monday.

"I love the compassion that I have with people," she said. "Old people made our way, young people are our future. So, therefore, I'm addicted to both."

"That's ice water from the mountains, how 'bout that?" she said to a patient, giving him some water.

After 23 years working at the Eaton plant, she got into nursing at 45 years old. Today, she helps many patients far younger than her.

"I feel very blessed. My health is my wealth, I can tell you that," she said with the voice of so much experience.

At her home, News 13 learned that keen sense of compassion comes from grief beyond belief. The family picture was forever fractured when her husband Milton was crushed by heavy equipment in 1979.

"A tractor fell on him and folded him up under a bush hog, six inches," she recalls. "By the time EMS got here, I had it off him. Don't ask me how -- the adrenaline, I guess."

Milton lived less than a year after that at 44.

A year and a half later, her son Danny died in an auto accident at the age of 24. She said it shattered her already broken heart.

"That was the hardest part of my life when I lost both of them so close together," she said. "I had nothing and nobody left."

Shirley was in the middle of nursing school and refused to be defined by tragedy.

"After my son got killed, I was in the bedroom sound asleep, and it's like a big light came in the bedroom window, and it's like God spoke to me and said 'I'm not through with you yet,'" she recalled. "That's when I began to mend."

Later, Shirley adopted two kids named Angie and Mitchell.

"These kids didn't have anybody. They needed me as much as I needed them," she said. "It's been a pleasure. It's a miracle, and it's a gift from God."

They turned out to be the best medicine for a grieving nurse.

Through the worst of times, she never quit caring about her patients. Her painful past made her an even better care provider, while also giving her a poignant perspective.

"I've often thought, 'Why did God leave me here?'" she said. "But I can look back now and see why God left me here."

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