Out in the hills of Ohio County, Sheila Ridner points out where she worked the family farm decades before, back when there were crops cows and pigs.

“Hauled in hay bales out of the field, set tobacco, stripped tobacco,” explained Ridner. “Took care of any emergency delivery issues with calving and all of that.”

And even though a lot has changed since then, Sheila says this is where the seeds were sown to become Dr. Sheila Ridner: Nurse, hospital CEO, professor and researcher.

“The lessons I learned growing up out in the country are really what got me through it. I learned to be tough as a kid.”

This tough kid graduated Fordsville High School as valedictorian and got her nursing degree at the University of Kentucky working in oncology.

“I was always interested in all of the unmet psychological needs in cancer patients.”

So when she married and her soldier husband Gary was shipped out to Germany, she saw it as an adventure — with a mission.

“They were reopening their drug and alcohol treatment program and psychiatric treatment program for the army… I volunteered to go work on those units.”

Back in the states, Sheila built on that experience, providing care to psychiatric and chemical dependency patients, all while getting her master’s degree in health services administration, eventually running that hospital as CEO.

“I had always thought I wanted to go back and get a PhD when I got older. And I literally got up and looked in the mirror one day and said ‘I’m older.'”

At 44-years old, Sheila went back to class at Vanderbilt, getting her second master’s degree and then on to her PhD.

“I’m going to follow up on some of these oncology things … and kind of see where we are in oncology.”

Which required a research class. And she caught the bug.

“I like the concept of being an investigator in research.”

The first grant request she wrote got funded, studying lymphedema in breast cancer patients.

“So much had gotten better, but lymphedema was dreadful … Nothing was being done very different from what was going on 20 years earlier.”

Lymphedema is the painful and debilitating build up of fluids in arms, legs, head and neck often as a result of radiation or surgery in some cancer patients. And for Sheila, it hit home. Sheila’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and she developed lymphedema.

“My mom had been a pianist in a church since she was 13-years old … Her arms got so bad, she couldn’t really play anymore and that just about killed her.”

Sheila was one of the first investigators in the United States to research methods and devices to help manage or even prevent lymphedema in cancer patients.

“Research is something that should have been being done for a long time. And when you talk to patients who are tired of just being told ‘just live with it’, it’s incredible.”

Her work led to changes in the standard of care and brought Sheila many honors and induction into two nursing halls of fame.

“You help people, you help your family, and you do what’s right. And that’s still my motto: You do what’s right.”

Sheila is now semi-retired, and still doing what’s right: volunteering at Owensboro’s Opportunity Center. The organization provides support and advocacy for adults with developmental delays.

“This population still kind of sits on the fringe of society, and if we’re interested in inclusion and equity, this group deserves a shot at that.”

Rosemary Conder, the executive director of the Owensboro Opportunity Center, said Sheila has a real passion and understanding of the needs of people with disabilities as well as expertise in the field of grant making and research.

Sheila has moved back to her family farm. She and Gary plan to restore it to its former glory, once again with cows, crops and a cat. It’s a big undertaking, but not too much for a tough kid from Ohio County.

“Don’t be afraid to change and take risks and be more open minded and to learn new things. You’re not too old, ever.”