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Union nursing students spend honeymoon as part of medical mission team

Lee and Nichole Baker, on their honeymoon as part of a mission trip to the Dominican Republic.
Lee and Nichole Baker, on their honeymoon as part of a mission trip to the Dominican Republic.

JACKSON, Tenn.July 11, 2012 – It didn’t take Lee Baker long to find something of interest to him at Union University. Her name was Nichole.

After an accelerated January class that served as their introduction to Union’s nurse anesthesia program, Lee and Nichole sat in the same graduate anatomy and physiology class with biology professor James Huggins.

Lee picked up on the material quickly, but others in the class — including Nichole — struggled.

“I found out she was struggling in the class and I just offered to help her,” Lee says. “She really wouldn’t let me.”

A genuine offer of help, or a carefully orchestrated tactic designed to woo the pretty girl?

Maybe a little of both, Lee now admits.

Whatever his motivation, his strategy worked. Nichole eventually relented and allowed Lee to “tutor” her. The two began studying together daily.

“Every single day,” Nichole says. “He wouldn’t let me go to sleep until 2 o’clock in the morning, just studying: ‘You’re going to get through this. You’re going to do this.’ He was tougher on me than Dr. Huggins.”

Lee’s persistence helped Nichole pass the class, and it helped him find a wife. The couple began dating and got married in January. They spent their honeymoon on a nursing mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Their story is one of perfect timing and providence, of service, sacrifice and love.

A native of Seattle, Wash., Nichole Goel graduated from Washington State University and knew she wanted to pursue a career as a certified registered nurse anesthetist. She just didn’t know where she wanted to go to school for her CRNA program.

She went on a mission trip to Peru during her undergraduate degree, and as she began looking at graduate schools, a thought came to her.

“I wonder if there’s a CRNA program that does a mission trip,” she wondered one day while thinking about her future.

She did a Google search and came across pictures of Molly Wright, the chair of Union’s CRNA program, and other students in the Dominican Republic as part of such a mission trip.

“No way,” Nichole thought. “What is this school?”

After doing more research, she discovered that she met all the requirements for admission and that the application deadline was still a few weeks away. Nichole figured that was all the reason she needed to apply. She later came for an interview, was accepted into the program and began her studies in January of 2011.

Lee hails from Eupora, Miss., a country town of about 2,000 people. For years, he had wanted to pursue nursing as a career — in part because of an aunt who is a nurse anesthetist. She’s the only person from his family to attend college.

During junior college, most of Lee’s friends began joining the military. One day he made a key decision about his future — he was either going to enter the military as well, or try to go to nursing school. He retook the ACT and got the necessary score for admission, so he applied at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. It was the only school where he applied, and everything fell into place for him to do his undergraduate work there.

The week of his graduation, Lee got some sobering news. His best friend — Justin Cooper, a marine sniper — had been killed in Afghanistan. Lee and Justin had grown up together. Their parents were best friends. Lee had planned to go to nurse anesthesia school after graduating, but the news of Justin’s death pushed those plans to the background, as Lee sunk into a nasty depression.

A few weeks after the funeral, Lee got a letter from Justin’s family with some news — in his will, Justin had left Lee the money to go back to school. Lee began preparing again to take the next step in his education, getting the experience and the certifications he needed. When he finally got ready to begin looking at master’s programs, someone told him about Union.

Lee came to a preview day to learn more about the university.

“I read about the faith background,” Lee says about Union. “I wasn’t familiar with private schools, so I was kind of reserved about whether they really were what they said they were about.”

At preview day, he met Dr. Huggins, who took the prospective students into the anatomy lab. He showed them a cadaver and began talking about the intricacies of the human body. Then he stopped and said something that caught Lee’s attention.

“Isn’t God great?” Huggins asked the students. “How can people think that this just happens?”

“Then I knew that this Union was really serious about what they said they were about,” Lee says. “And he asked us to pray with him right then. So I decided then that I was going to apply.”

Fast forward a few months, when Lee and Nichole entered the program, began studying together and decided there was something special about their relationship. They started attending Englewood Baptist Church together, and began taking Wednesday night classes about what it meant to be a Baptist. The class was especially meaningful for Nichole, who grew up in a nondenominational church and had never been baptized. One day she told Lee she wanted a Bible that had room for notes in the margin, because she was learning so much and wanted to be able to jot notes in her Bible. She soon forgot about mentioning it, but Lee didn’t.

As their relationship progressed, Lee decided he was going to propose. Then he began thinking about how he wanted to pop the question. Nichole had decided to get baptized, and Lee knew he wanted to propose before her baptism, since his family was coming up for the event and they could celebrate both milestones together.

He remembered what Nichole had said about the Bible and found one that he thought she would like. He had “Nichole Baker” inscribed on the front, and found a fitting passage, Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him — a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Lee highlighted the passage and wrote a note in the margin: “Three strands: Husband, wife, God. I’ll love you always.” He put the engagement ring in the Bible, then closed it and put it in a bag.

At the right time, Lee left the bag out for Nichole to find. She asked him what it was.

“Something I got you since you’re getting baptized,” he told her.

She opened up the bag and pulled out the Bible. Though she saw the inscription on the front, Nichole didn’t think anything of it. As she held the Bible, the ring fell out.

“It didn’t happen at all the way I’d planned,” Lee says.

But then Nichole picked up the ring and figured out what was happening. Lee showed her the passage. She cried, and said yes.

They got married less than two months later, on Jan. 14. The wedding took place in Barefoots Joe, a coffee shop on the Union campus. Wright planned the wedding. Huggins performed the ceremony. Nichole borrowed the dress from her roommate, and the couples’ friends and classmates all pitched in to help.

Instead of taking a typical honeymoon, Lee and Nichole decided to do something different. Union’s School of Nursing was taking a mission trip to the Dominican Republic in late January and early February, so the couple decided to participate in that endeavor and make it their honeymoon.

They were part of team that set up medical clinics, pharmacies and dentist offices in the villages, assessing patients and treating all kinds of ailments — flu-like symptoms, ear impactions, the common cold. The nurse anesthesia students also worked with volunteer doctors who were performing various surgeries at a local hospital.

“It was an awesome experience,” Lee says. “I don’t think any of us were prepared for what we were going to see down there — the amount of poverty and people who really are just thankful that you’re there.”

For Nichole, the trip gave her insight into how she can be a better nurse — and a better person — every day.

“The biggest lesson I learned on this trip is how you can reflect the love of Jesus Christ just by simple acts of kindness,” she says.

Although their honeymoon was exhausting, with long days and challenging experiences, Lee and Nichole say it was a perfect way to end the last chapter in their lives and to start the next one.

“I don’t think we could have had a better honeymoon,” Lee says. “It was so perfect to be able to go down there and help people, take care of people and be together while we’re doing it. I don’t think we could have had more fun or been touched by something as much.”

This story was published in a recent edition of Union University’s campus magazine, the Unionite. The magazine has a new web address: www.uu.edu/unionite. Please visit it frequently to read Union news and features.

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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