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University of Colorado College of Nursing

College of Nursing

Ben Hilliard: A Stroke Inspires Him to Go Back to School to Become a Nurse

"Back to School" nursing scholarship enables student to follow nursing dream

College of Nursing student Ben Hilliard is celebrating after being chosen out of 500 applicants to receive the 2011 “Back to School” nursing scholarship.  He can trace his decision to become a nurse back to the day he was running six-minute miles on an outdoor track with the Temperature hovering above 100 degrees in Bandar Baru Bangi, Malaysia.

“I felt something pop,” he remembers.  “Next I knew I was lying on the infield grass.  I picked up my left arm with my right hand, and when I let go, my left arm fell back on the ground.  I lay on the ground, calling ‘Help’ in English and then in Malay.”

A 1998 Bucknell University graduate, Hilliard had spent a short stint in New Guinea with the Peace Corps, before returning to the United States to get married.  He and his wife, Casey, moved to Colorado where this former English major carved out a new career as a district manager for a concrete manufacturer.

When Hilliard’s wife decided to pursue her doctorate in medical anthropology at McGill University, the couple spent three years in Montreal, and when she won a Fulbright scholarship, they moved to Malaysia in 2006.  Hilliard studied the Malay language for seven months before he went to work as a tutor and translator.

An avid runner, Hilliard was trying to beat his personal best one early morning, when he felt a tingling in his foot.  He slowed to a jog and then collapsed.  His left side was paralyzed.  He lay on the ground for 40 minutes before his wife, concerned that he had not returned home, came looking, heard him yelling and found him. 

At the age of 31, top-notch athlete Ben Hilliard had been brought down by a stroke.

“When they loaded me into the ambulance, my wife kept trying to tell the attendants that we needed to rush to the hospital in Kuala Lumpur,” he recalls.  “But there is no literal translation in Malay for ‘sense of urgency.’  Instead, I heard the attendants say what I would hear a hundred times in the next year:  ‘Nasiblah.’   Translated, it means ‘It’s fate.’”

As fate would have it, Hilliard landed in a hospital equipped to treat him with both western and eastern medicine.  “If you wanted western medicine, you went to the west wing,” he laughs.  “Then you went over to the east wing for acupuncture.”  He would spend more than a year recovering, most of that time spent in rehabilitation.    

 The experience gave him new direction for his future.

“When you go through something like a stroke,” he says, “you stop and ask yourself what you want out of life. What I wanted was to give someone else the great care I received.” 

When the Hilliards returned to Colorado, Ben Hilliard went to work full time in Littleton Public Schools and, at the same time, took all his prerequisites for nursing school.  He applied to several schools, but the University of Colorado College of Nursing “was where I wanted to go.   It has a great reputation and I was really impressed by the number of clinical hours I would get.”

His philosophy about winning the scholarship is simple.  “You have to apply to win.  If you apply, you will have a chance, but if you don’t apply, you don’t even have a chance. “ 

Today, Ben Hilliard says he has made a “tremendous” recovery from the stroke, but he still feels its effects.  “I walk with a limp, I have chronic pain, and I am no longer athletic or even fully coordinated,” he says.

But none of that will stand in the way of his goal.  Hilliard hopes to become a nurse practitioner, working in a rural community.   “I want equitable access to healthcare for everyone.  I like the idea of serving the underserved.  But most important, I like offering direct help to people because I know what difference good healthcare made in my life.”