Debbie Chatman Bryant: Advocate seeks to educate, empower patients

Debbie Bryant with husband Jeff, to whom she first voiced her lifelong desire to become a nurse.

Grace Beahm // The Post and Courier

Debbie Chatman Bryant is assistant director of cancer prevention, control and outreach at the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center.

Debbie Chatman Bryant always wanted to be a nurse, but never believed that she could become one. Her desire to practice nursing sprang from childhood memories of people in her Moncks Corner community being sick and not really understanding their illnesses.

In addition, Bryant says doctors, nurses and hospital stays were a fact of her early life. So was her and her parents' frustration at not being able to understand the medical terminology doctors and nurses used when speaking of her conditions.

"I was sickly. I lost all of my hair. I had these sores and stuff. I had a hernia. And I always had stomach problems," says Bryant, who today still is unsure about all of her illnesses.

Even then, Bryant, now 51 and assistant director for cancer prevention, control and outreach at the Hollings Cancer Center, wanted to help. At some point, she told herself that if she could become a nurse, she would find a way to talk to patients so they could understand.

"No one ever told me I could be one (a nurse)," says Bryant, who earned her doctorate in nursing practice from the Medical Univer-sity of South Carolina in May.

Early years in school

Bryant grew up during the '60s, a time filled with the promise of great social change for many African-Americans, but not for her. She was assigned to third- and fourth-grade classes for children thought to not have much promise and basically was ignored, she says.

"We were going from segregation to desegregation," she says. "But I was in the classroom with white teachers who weren't supporting that dream. The message I got was, 'You're poor. You're stupid. You're not going to be anything.' I believed that because I was put in classes for slow learners," she says.

"My parents were not educated people. It wasn't until I got into the fifth grade and went to middle school, where there were black teachers, that somebody noticed I was in the wrong class."

Somehow, Bryant came to the attention of a guidance counselor, she says. One day, the counselor simply told Bryant that she was going to be in a different class.

"It was scary," Bryant recalls. "They were doing things I didn't know how to do. It became a situation where I was always trying to hide what I didn't know and trying to be just as good as they were.

"I would work very hard," Bryant says.

She didn't know that getting a B instead of an A was not the end of the world. She felt the constant pressure of trying to meet unfamiliar criteria. And she always was afraid someone would discover the weaknesses she tried to hide and conclude she didn't belong among academically stronger students after all.

Early adult life

Bryant continued to do her best and graduated from Berkeley High School in 1978. She attended the College of Charleston but was unhappy, she says.

"I was tiny, had crooked teeth and no hair. I was always the best friend and never the girlfriend. I should not have been there at that time," she says. "I left there feeling defeated. If I had had some money in my pocket, I could have run away."

Instead, she went to work for the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles in Moncks Corner and took classes at Trident Technical College. At the time, she was unsure of what she wanted but tried to stay active in school and in her community.

She got involved with organizing a high school class reunion. It led to meeting, then marrying, a former classmate, Jeff Bryant, who had been serving in the Army oversees and could not attend the reunion but visited her on his next leave.

After marrying, she moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., sold real estate and had a string of jobs, she says. Then, one day she heard herself voicing her desire to become a nurse to her husband. The words just came out of her mouth.

In 1992, when her husband was assigned to Fort Stewart, Ga., she attended what then was called Armstrong State College in Savannah and earned an associate degree in nursing.

"I had dreams of running Trident hospital, but an associate's degree wasn't going to do it," Bryant says.

So she enrolled at the Medical University of South Carolina School of Nursing in a bridge program and earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in 2002.

While studying, she worked nights and weekends as needed at Trident Medical Center. There, she met a patient who was constantly returning to the hospital with complications from diabetes. The disease also ran in the patient's family. They did not understand how to avoid getting diabetes, and those who had it did not know how to live with it.

"My interest piqued in diabetes," says Bryant, who began working as a diabetes educator at the hospital.

She also had joined the Tri-county Black Nurses Association and became involved in several outreach programs. Bryant soon was thinking that she could help more people by educating communities about health care.

"She is an advocate for the patient," says Keith Waring, a financial adviser who worked with Bryant as a volunteer on Dr. Thaddeus Bell's Closing the Gap in Healthcare initiative. "She is solution-oriented and always focuses on the positive. I have never seen her down."

How was she able to deal with the problems that life brought her way?

"I think God instilled a spirit in her that enables her to keep moving ahead despite difficulties," Waring says. "I just love the way she tells you she is going to do something and she gets things done."

Professional life

In 2002, she began work at MUSC on a hearing research study that was having a difficult time attracting black participants.

Then, she moved on to the Hollings Cancer Center in 2005 and developed a program to help patients move from screening through diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Her outreach and patient services responsibilities at Hollings continued to grow, and in the fall of 2010, she assumed her current position educating patients.

"It's all about how you talk to people, meeting people where they are," Bryant says referring to the communities her office educates. "I'm trying to make sure they have all the information. We can change health care, but first we've got to talk to people.

"My goal is to not so much to serve as to empower and build capacity in, to 'teach a man how to fish.' "

Bryant's father, Lewis Chatman, with whom she was very close, died during the years she worked on her doctorate. But Bryant is confident he knew that she could and would earn that degree.

"Whenever you did something and he was proud of you, he'd say, 'I'm gonna buy you a Pepsi Cola.' When I finished this doctorate, my mother (Louise Chatman) bought a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi for me. She could not have given me a more appropriate gift."