Over the past 100 years, North Carolina Baptist Hospital has provided lifesaving and often life-altering care that has inspired many recovered patients to give back. Some contribute financially and some become volunteers, while a few—like Buffy Jester—choose full-time careers in health care.
On May 12, 1995, when Buffy was 20 years old, North Carolina Baptist Hospital surgeons successfully removed part of her brain to control seizures that had been worsening for a decade. Twenty years later, after having two children and earning a college degree, Buffy returned to the hospital as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in the Emergency Department (ED).
“I wanted to give back, and I love what I do,” said Buffy, who checks and restocks nursing supplies for the busy department and serves as a sitter for patients placed on observation. “I’ve touched a lot of people, especially the young epileptic patients who are encouraged by my story.”
At age 9, Buffy was in a car accident, and her head struck the car’s unpadded, metal dashboard. Six months later, seizures began. Later, she began to have worsening seizures with sensations of voices and auras. At 13, she was having five or six per day. Buffy later learned that her grandfather had epilepsy, which might have made her more likely to have head trauma-induced seizures.
Although Buffy was prescribed anti-seizure medication, she continued to have breakthrough events. She was treated by several doctors, including Dr. Kiffin Penry, a neurologist at North Carolina Baptist Hospital who was widely known in the epilepsy field. She was eventually referred to Dr. Penry’s associate, Dr. William Bell.
Meanwhile, Buffy was dealing with family dysfunction at home and a lack of understanding and empathy at school. She shuttled between her father’s and mother’s homes and at 17 moved into her own apartment. After an argument with her mother over Buffy’s disability money, Buffy landed at Forsyth-Stokes Mental Health Center.
She now counts that as a blessing. At the center, she met Walter Gwyn Jester, a fellow patient who would later become her husband. But first he became her advocate. Walter took care of her and took her to medical appointments. By the end of 1994, Walter asked Dr. Bell what else could be done. “Buffy cannot have a life like this,” he pleaded.
Dr. Bell had been waiting to recommend surgery until Buffy had a secure place to go through recovery. Tests pinpointed where the seizures originated in her brain, and Buffy was scheduled for removal of part of her right temporal lobe.
“When I woke up, I had 274 staples in my head,” she said. Three months after the surgery, Walter proposed. “He asked me to marry him, and I had no hair and was wearing a hat. I told him, I guess looks don’t matter,” she chuckled.
In 1996, Buffy became pregnant with her first child, Anthony Gwyn Jester, who today works in Patient Transport at the hospital. Throughout her first and second pregnancies, Buffy took 14 pills every day to ensure she had no seizures. Her daughter, Andrea Marie Jester, arrived in 1998. After having her children, her seizures stopped, and eventually she weaned herself off medications.
Her Turn to Give Back
In 1999, Buffy decided to get a job and stop collecting disability. She had to start with occupational therapy-type placements, and then worked at a fast-food restaurant and a tobacco plant. Neither was a good fit. Then she became a housekeeper at a skilled nursing facility.
“They saw how good I was with residents and paid for me to get my CNA,” she said. “Once I passed, I knew that was my goal, to go into health care.” Being a certified nursing assistant later enabled her to work in home care for a few years.
In 2004, the family moved to Wilmington, N.C., and Buffy decided to resume her education. She earned her GED at Cape Fear Community College in 2009 and enrolled at Miller-Motte College. There, she completed an associate degree in medical assisting in 2010, and a bachelor’s degree in allied health management in 2014, graduating on the dean’s list with a 3.4 cumulative grade-point average.
Buffy’s next career goal is to pursue a degree in clinical psychology. She was inspired by something that happened soon after she started work at the hospital. She was assigned as a sitter for a young woman who was depressed and suicidal. It was Christmastime.
“I told her about everything I had to fight through,” Buffy said. “I told her that I had to start late, and she was still young.” The patient confided that Buffy had given her the determination to get better. A couple years later, Buffy saw a familiar face come through the ED door. The woman said to her: “I was a patient in 2015. I’m a paramedic now. Thanks for supporting me.”
As of October 2023, it has been eight years that Buffy has been a teammate at the hospital. “Working through the pandemic was very stressful,” she said. “Being in the ED, we were some of the first ones to see patients with COVID-19. But I had faith and determination that we would get through it together.”
Buffy said she greatly appreciates North Carolina Baptist Hospital and everything the doctors did for her. “I’m so proud to work for a hospital that changed my life,” she said. “Now I have the privilege to help care for patients like Baptist Hospital cared for me.”