An extended family in Dickson County got way cooler by three degrees — college degrees — during this summer’s heat that covered the Midstate.

The recent graduates are Dr. Laura Sanders, who received her medical degree from Lincoln Memorial University’s DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine; Laura’s twin sister Libby (older by six minutes), who has completed the course work for a master’s degree in nursing/midwifery from Frontier Nursing University in Hyden, Ky.; and their cousin Julia Vaive, who graduated from Cal State-Fullerton with a Fine Arts degree.

Because of COVID-19 precautions, Laura and Julia received their diplomas in the mail when their formal graduation ceremonies (and a couple of family celebrations) were cancelled. Libby has had her degree officially delayed because of the reduced availability of required clinical hours because of the virus. She is currently finishing those hours.

All three also graduated from Dickson County High School.

The twins’ mother, Jaime Duke Sanders Vaive, and their grandparents, Ronnie and Barbara Duke, live in Dickson County (Libby lived with her grandparents while attending Belmont). Julia’s father, Garth Vaive, also lives in Dickson County. An uncle and aunt, Donald and Liz Sanders, live in Dickson with their two sons, Drew and Ethan.  

The three graduates not only share education success, but also some unfortunate family history. The twins’ father, Daniel Sanders, passed away when they were 14. Julia’s mother, Ramona Sanders Vaive, died of a brain aneurysm when Julia was 3.

In two of the graduation photos sent to the Dickson Post, Libby and Laura are wearing their father’s favorite ballcap, a Dale Earnhardt Goodwrench Racing hat. They have a tradition of wearing it for a photo after each of their graduation ceremonies.

All three women were students in former longtime Dickson County High School art teacher Kay Welton’s class. Welton has attended church with the family for years and also taught the twins’ father when he was in second grade.

Welton said that many family members would attend the students’ art shows to support them.

“All three were great students and hard-working, talented and very responsible. They were definitely their own people,” Welton said. “They were just fun kids to be around.”

Laura Sanders

Laura was named the outstanding student in internal medicine in her graduating class last spring. In July she began her first year of residency at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville (her top request for a residency site). The 2012 graduate of Dickson County High School also graduated from Austin Peay State University in 2016 with summa cum laude honors and a degree in biology (minor in chemistry).

“I was in Art Club and took every art class Dickson County High School offered. I went to college initially to study art but changed to biology/premed after one year,” Laura said.

Her focus now is internal medicine (the treatment and diagnosis of internal diseases).

“I went through a bunch of clinical rotations. I thought I was going to be a surgeon for a while but I didn’t want to be on call all the time, plus it is cold in the operating room,” she said. “Internal medicine is the gateway to any specialty. If a patient comes in with a stroke or high blood pressure, things like that, I have to know how to manage it.”

Her schedule now is one day off every week and one weekend off a month. She arrives at the hospital around 6:45 a.m. and finishes her shift between 4:30 and 8 p.m. She said that the length of time each day at a hospital creates a COVID-19 risk to her, although none of her patients have tested positive.

“I go to work every day knowing that I could get it,” she said. “So, you just wear your mask and wash your hands. When my class was finishing up, we thought we would be eased into medicine, but now we have to learn how to treat something new. I wish we didn’t because this virus is so devastating to a lot of people.”

Between graduation and the start of her residency, Laura had planned a couple of celebration trips — a 10-day visit to Portland and San Diego with her best friend and a week-long trip to Hawaii with her grandparents. COVID-19 precautions cancelled both trips. 

“I did have a drive-by graduation party. Family and friends drove by my house for me,” Laura said.

Welton described Laura as “very sweet and outgoing.” Laura said she already learned an important lesson in connecting with patients.

“A lady was dying of lung disease and had stopped treatment. The nurses had taken her red nail polish off to put monitors on her fingers,” she said. “I went to get some red nail polish so her daughter could reapply it. The look on her face and her daughter’s face when I gave it to them … they cried. I cried. You have to make a human connection.”

Libby Sanders

Libby is a Registered Nurse in the Emory Perinatal Center in Atlanta. The 2012 graduate of Dickson County High School graduated from Belmont University with a nursing degree in 2016.

She had four years of undergraduate courses, 2½ years of midwifery courses with 675 hours of clinical experience and will soon start her 18-month journey to get her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. She is also considering a post-graduate certificate for women’s mental health.

She is working 40 hours each week at the perinatal center handling high-risk pregnancy cases and 30-40 hours each week of clinical hours to finish the master’s degree. 

Libby (described by Welton as “the outspoken one”) was a Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) president at DCHS. The three-year cheerleader was named her senior class’ health science award winner.

“My dad always told us that education is the most important thing you can do,” she said. “My advice to students is to know what you want to do and do it in a financially responsible way; don’t get degrees willy-nilly.”

Libby said that labor and delivery was the only rotation she enjoyed in nursing school. She estimated that she has helped to deliver thousands of babies. 

Libby, who said that she talks to her sister a few times each week, said that the impact of the medical profession has been highlighted to her during the pandemic.

“It makes you realize that bad things can happen to anyone at any time,” she said. “But as nurses and medical professionals, you realize that you are changing a life forever with what you do.”

Libby also finds a few hours between hospital time to plan her wedding. 

“My fiancée lives here (Atlanta) and it is a hub of healthcare and still driving distance to home,” she said.

They are currently planning a wedding at a beach next May.

Julia Vaive

Like her cousins, Julia holds the success of her career literally in her hands.

Julia, who graduated from Dickson County High School in 2011, received her bachelor of fine arts degree (focusing on painting and drawing) from Cal State-Fullerton in May. 

She had her first personal art show last February.

“(Art) can be painful work and it takes a lot of drive,” Julia said. “I am very meticulous and there was no hour of the day I wasn’t thinking about that show or classes.”

Julia said that she took her first art class as an eighth grader at Dickson Middle School. She took art classes throughout high school and joined some other students in requesting an advanced ceramics class be added to the curriculum.

“My father and brother and aunts all enjoy some form of art … fashion, jewelry, etc. So, I was really born into art,” Julia said.

In college, she focused her studies on oil paintings. “That was my chosen medium. My final project was oil painting on wood panels,” she said.

She also added a little hometown touch to some of her paintings, creating artwork of the iris, which is the official state flower of Tennessee.

“We had some beautiful purple ones in our front yard growing up in Dickson,” she said.

She now spends her working time in an open-air warehouse studio called FRANCES that she co-owns with her partner, Israel Alexander Feliciano, in Los Angeles. They have been commissioned to create a large, outdoor mural, sculptures and lobby and gallery design for a three-building complex being built in Los Angeles.

Julia is also training to climb Mount Whitney — the largest mountain in the continental United States with a 14,505-foot elevation — for the second time.

She said that her Aunt Regina had planned to come to California for the graduation ceremony but coronavirus cancelled that trip. Her Aunt Liz, father and brother are planning to travel to Los Angeles for a gallery showing.

“I am surrounded by nature with my artwork. That is a celebration for me,” Julia said.

“Julia is really talented. I could always see her going to a bigger venue than Dickson County,” Welton said. “I fully expected her to have a career in art and she is fulfilling that destiny.”

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