Kristin Hillman walked across the stage at Auburn Arena on May 6, one of 152 new graduates from Auburn University's Harrison School of Pharmacy. For her, receiving her PharmD degree is the completion of a journey that started more than 30 years ago.
In 1977, the Hillman family was returning home to Murfreesboro, Tennessee from a trip to Canada. While driving through Illinois, Kristin's older brother Jeff started to show signs of a fever. Once home, the fever was still present and, as was common then, Jeff was given a dose of baby aspirin.
The family was unaware that Illinois had an outbreak of Reye's syndrome – a mysterious and potentially fatal disease with detrimental effects on many organs, including the brain and liver – or the connection between it and aspirin.
Jeff had in fact contracted Reye's and his condition quickly worsened. Within a week, he had advanced to the fourth of five stages of the syndrome and fell into a coma with a 50/50 chance of survival.
Though he still has some physical limitations as a result of Reye's, Jeff is alive and well. His story of recovery has even been chronicled in a book by Bill Conger, "Rejoice in the Lord Always: The Jeff Hillman Story."
Kristin Hillman was just five years old at the time, but the experience stuck with her and fueled a passion to help others through medicine.
"Much of what I wanted to do by coming back for pharmacy school was to give back," she said. "Because of my brother and his experience, there is a special place in my heart when I can give back to someone medically."
While Hillman says she has always known what she wanted to do, the path to get to that stage in Auburn Arena has not been a direct one. She first came to Auburn in 1990. Pre-pharmacy was her major, but it was volleyball that brought her to the Plains.
"I had some Division II scholarship offers, but I wanted the chance to play after college and I was offered the opportunity to walk on at Auburn," she said.
Hillman was injured her first season at Auburn, but her off-season work ethic impressed new head coach Sharon Dingman enough to award her a scholarship for the 1991 season. She appeared in 31 sets that season, helping Auburn to a 22-13 record and an 8-8 mark in Southeastern Conference play, but the injuries returned prior to the 1992 season and her volleyball career was over.
In the meantime, she had changed her major to marine biology and earned her degree in 1995.
"I changed my major because of volleyball because it was so difficult to balance it and the pre-pharmacy coursework," Hillman said. "I thought marine biology would be easier, but it wasn't. I was also unsure of what I wanted to do at that time."
After graduation, she moved to Atlanta where she co-owned a landscaping business that is still thriving today, sold building materials for Georgia-Pacific, was a property manager for nine homeowners associations, and was a flight attendant for AirTran Airways.
"I took the flight attendant job because it was a good platform to figure out what was next for me," she said. "I really wanted to be able to make a solid decision instead of jumping from job to job."
The decision to make a jump to pharmacy school came while she was living in London, working as a bartender.
"I decided enough was enough and I wanted to do it. I finally decided to believe in myself that I could actually do it," Hillman said. "A lot of that was what held me back from going back sooner. The worst thing I could do is not make it and that's not so bad. I wanted to be a professional in the workplace, respected and be someone that could really make a difference."
The first step was a call to Paul Jungnickel, the pharmacy school's associate dean for academic and student affairs.
"Dr. Jungnickel was so supportive and said all the right things," Hillman said. "He helped throughout the application process. I felt like I needed to be a lawyer to get through the process; it was intense."
While some pharmacy schools require a student who is more than five years removed from undergrad to essentially go through undergrad again, Auburn looks more at the Pharmacy College Admissions Test, or PCAT. Empowered by this opportunity, Hillman embraced a key component of the Auburn Creed and went to "work, hard work."
She found a bookstore in London that sold textbooks and picked up a collection on organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, biology and others.
"Once I make up my mind on something, I am very dedicated and disciplined," she said. "I bought all these textbooks and tried to re-learn everything. I just went to this library in Kensington, next to Hyde Park, and studied all the time."
Once she felt up to it, Hillman registered for the PCAT and moved to Auburn. Without an acceptance letter in hand, she got an apartment and enrolled in summer school to take some of the required classes for her to start pharmacy school. Then, one day in the middle of the summer, she got the news she had been waiting for.
"I was midway through the semester when I got the letter," said Hillman. "I probably jumped 10 feet in the air when I found out. I was just at a time in my life when I knew I was ready to do it."
Pharmacy school is a challenge for anyone, but for someone that took their last college class 15 years earlier, it can be especially challenging. Still, Hillman said she looked at her experience and new perspective as a strength.
"Being older, you are more disciplined, and I felt like I had my ducks in a row," she said. "At the same time, your brain doesn't work as well as the 23-year-olds' sitting next to you, and I think I had to work harder than some of my classmates to keep up. The load of pharmacy school is so heavy and so challenging."
She credits Rajesh Amin, Lea Eiland, Kelly Hester, Kristen Helms and Susie Thomas for helping her get through the last four years. Amin, her mentor in the school's Professional Practice Experience during her first and third years, said that Hillman's maturity and people skills will make her a great representative of Auburn's pharmacy school.
"Kristin is a person who has lived a very full life and thus allowed her to get a great insight and clairvoyance toward how best to interact with people," said Amin. "She is always challenging herself to grow and become somebody better than she is now. Her people skills and sincere desire for the best patient care possible will allow her to reflect the best of what the Harrison School of Pharmacy has to offer to the community, as well as the field of pharmacy."
Now, four years later, she has her degree and is ready for the next phase in her life – a residency at Huntsville Hospital as a clinical pharmacist.
"It is pretty exciting. If I cannot think about what is ahead of me and the doubts and fears that come up with the future, just think about right now and what I did, I am extremely proud of myself," Kristin said. "I did it! I accomplished it and I did alright. If you are able to accomplish something you didn't think you could do in the first place, it is a very fulfilling feeling. I am ready to celebrate."
— By Matt Crouch, Harrison School of Pharmacy