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Columbia Business Monthly

Long Road Paved Way to Success

Nov 10, 2021 11:46AM ● By Liv Osby

Smith Heavner took the long road from the bottom third of his high school class to a Ph.D., even flunking out of nursing school along the way.

But today he is scientific director of the CURE Drug Repurposing Collaboratory, a public-private partnership with the FDA and the National Institutes of Health.

And that likely wouldn’t have happened, he says, without a community college education that gave him the encouragement and support he needed.

“I wouldn’t have made it without Tri-County Technical College,” he told Integrated Media, publisher of Greenville Business Magazine, Columbia Business Monthly and Charleston Business Magazine.

“It speaks to the fact that we need these different educational environments,” he added. “For someone like me, (it) meant I was able to go all the way to a terminal degree.”

Though he’d excelled in elementary and middle school, Heavner, 33, found himself adrift in high school. 

“I had always heard from teachers that I needed to go to college, and it was the way to succeed,” said the Simpsonville man. “But I wasn’t a great student in high school. I didn’t have the grades to have my pick of schools.”

Then in his senior year, he took some classes taught by professors from the Pendleton college, crediting one of them with providing the inspiration and confidence to go forward.

“I had such a wonderful experience that semester,” he recalls. “She told me I was doing things at a college level.”

So he applied to Tri-County after graduation, hoping a smaller learning environment where teachers were more familiar with students like him would be beneficial.

“It was a good assumption to make,” he said. “At Tri-County, I had teachers who were interested in spending the time teaching me how to be a good student.”

Heavner studied nursing, but initially struggled and failed the associate’s degree program. Then, he switched to the LPN, or licensed practical nursing program, which he says he mastered because of the extra guidance.

Community college is not a sink-or-swim environment, said Jennifer Hulehan, the teacher who motivated Heavner years ago and is now dean of Academic and Career Foundations at Tri-County.

It affords people an opportunity to achieve their goals and improve their upward economic mobility, for themselves, their families and their communities, she said. 

“We will meet you where you are and help you get where you want to be,” she said. “It comes down to believing in the potential that students have. Many students in community college … have experienced some level of they’re not good enough or smart enough for college. And simply hearing the message that you can do it … and we will provide the resources that help you achieve your goals makes a huge difference.”

After graduating in 2010, Heavner enrolled in Clemson University’s bachelor program in clinical and translational science. And while working on his degree, he held positions as a nursing assistant and nurse. 

Then he got a job with Prisma Health at Hillcrest Hospital, where he worked on quality improvement projects, which, he said, whetted his appetite for research.

So he took Clemson’s graduate certificate in clinical and translational research, thinking he’d go on to be a nurse practitioner. But he fell in love with research and enrolled in the master of science in applied health research and evaluation program. 

During that time, he was a critical care nurse. But he ended up leaving the bedside to become a research manager at Prisma in 2019. The following spring, as the pandemic spread across the country, he was tapped to lead Prisma’s Covid-19 registry to track data to support operations decisions, such as capacity, ventilator and supply chain issues.

That led to him represent Prisma at an international Covid registry project -- led by the Mayo Clinic and Society of Critical Care Medicine Discovery Network – which sought to automate patient information from electronic health records instead of inputting it manually, knocking three hours work down to five minutes and resulting in a live feed of data, he said.

Dr. Jess Hobbs, medical director of the emergency department at Prisma’s Greenville Memorial Hospital, met Heavner as a new attending physician at Hillcrest seven years ago. She was impressed by his empathy and compassion, especially for those who needed extra emotional support, like sexual assault patients.

That experience shaped her practice, she said.

“I was lucky to go through that process of learning to be a new attending with him,” said Hobbs, who is also medical director of Prisma’s sexual assault forensic medicine program. “He was a great example for me.”

Hobbs said she and Heavner bonded over the challenges of becoming health care providers, including his early nursing school failure. 

“But he takes those experiences and turns them into strengths,” she said, “which is very admirable.”

Heavner’s passion and dedication were evident in every role he had at Prisma, from nurse to researcher, she said, adding, “I knew from the beginning he was going to achieve greatness.”

After the registry project, a subcommittee won some large grants, resulting in the position Heavner now holds with CURE, which works to advance drug repurposing for diseases with high unmet medical need.

“We are pulling together a consortium of two large Covid-19 registries and partnering with Johns Hopkins to develop a tool to extract data from electronic health records to leverage real data about how drugs are used off-label,” he said.

That information will be provided to the FDA and other regulatory agencies, he said.

CURE Executive Director Marco Schito said Heavner has the skill set the group needs, including informatics, database building and extracting information from electronic health records.  

“And he has an ability to integrate with the team and work effectively,” he said. “He’s just a wonderful person to be able to interact with.” 

Heavner loves research, but does miss caring for patients.

“There’s something wonderful about having a patient come in who’s not feeling well and being able to do something to make them feel better,” he said.

Still, he says that now he’s contributing to care for thousands of patients and that he’ll volunteer at a free clinic once he’s finished his Ph.D. in applied health research and evaluation in November.

In a letter to faculty and staff earlier this year, Heavner said Tri-County helped him “love learning again.” 

“In moments of frustration when I was near to giving up, they assured me they believed in me,” he wrote. “The walls of my office are covered with diplomas, awards, and recognitions, but I start each day looking at my 2010 diploma in practical nursing. I look at it and remember that my failures don’t define me … and remember what was given to me at Tri-County Technical College.”

Yes, Heavner hit some obstacles along the way, Hulehan said. 

“But now he’s gone on to this huge new position where he will impact public health beyond our community,” she said. “And in this case, even the world.”