After spending 10 years in the desert, in 2016, Katie Adams Emerson was back in Wayne County during Homecoming, when Queen Katie Gassman shared her crown with fellow court-member and friend, Chelsea Sloan. Gassman did not realize this act of compassion would have a ripple effect.
Emerson graduated from Seymour Community High School in 1998. She had been looking for a reason to return home to southern Iowa.
While watching the parade, captured by KCCI Channel 8 news cameras, Emerson was moved emotionally by Gassman’s gesture, because it was close to her heart. She took it as a sign. Emerson and husband Nick have a three-year-old daughter with special needs. Her name is Brielle. They also have a seven-year-old son, Luke.
Gassman’s gift to Sloan turned out to be a life-changing experience for the Emerson family.
“The story was so big,” Emerson said, as video of 2016’s Boom Night in Wayne’s gym went viral, receiving several million views on the internet. “I told my husband, ‘there you go—that’s it.’”
By the Holidays last year, she had moved back with her family to Wayne County, into Dave and Donna Donald’s old house on the west side of Corydon. They went from a yard with synthetic green blades that never grew—around the same size of her office at the hospital—to five acres of bluegrass.
“It was like Astroturf, but fancier,” Emerson said of her fake Phoenix lawn. “I missed a lot about Iowa, not just my family—I missed green grass and trees. Arizona is very brown, and not as lively and lush. I missed black dirt.
“When it came down to what was important for my family, when we had all of the challenges with our daughter, the grass was the greenest back home with the people who really know and care about you.”
On Mon., Oct. 9, Emerson took over as Chief Nursing Officer at Wayne County Hospital and Clinic System, a position previously filled by Sheila Mattly.
“I couldn’t believe an opportunity to be a part of something that was so important, and played such a significant role in why I wanted to be back here with my family, would open up—it feels like the fate thing, again,” said Emerson. “I told my husband, we’re back for the school and the healthcare system. To get to play a role in one of those two things is exciting.
“I feel humbled and honored to have this position. I think [WCHCS CEO] Daren Relph is doing great things here. There’s so much potential with this group of physicians and workers.”
Katie’s sister Holly Adams Arnold graduated from Wayne in 1994, and Holly’s family lives in their grandparents’—Harvey and Dorothy Morgan’s—old house in Sewal. Holly’s daughter was in the Homecoming parade—it was the reason the Emersons were present that day.
While Holly has lived almost her entire life in southern Iowa, at first, Katie needed a broader canvas.
“We talk about the grass being greener—how ironic is that,” Emerson said. “I always had that mindset as I grew up.
“It is such a memorable piece of my childhood. It had a big influence on my memories and wanting my kids to be a part of seeing the farm and growing up out there. That was important to us. My heart is in Wayne County.
“This morning, when we were getting Luke ready for school, there were three deer in our backyard—vastly different than where we were at before.”
Into the desert
For a decade, the Emersons lived in the southwestern desert of the United States. In another instance where fate intervened in her life, she had worked as a travel nurse after graduating from the University of Iowa in 2003, before she met her husband.
“I didn’t want to come home at the time,” Emerson said of her mindset immediately after college. There were still wild oats to sow.
She began in medical-surgical nursing in Madison, Wisc. Then a stopover at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines for trauma work, before her travelling gig, which took her from Boston to Denver and back, and then to the desert blooms.
“Moving from the Midwest to a big city like Boston was a culture shock,” Emerson said.
Emerson had been through Harvard, Iowa, but she had never crossed the campus in Cambridge that bears the same name as the old, unincorporated railroad town on the way from Corydon to Sewal. It is less populated—since the railway left—and less world-renowned than the Ivy League school in Massachusetts.
“I flew out on a plane,” Emerson said. “I didn’t have a car. I used the ‘T,’ which is the subway system. I walked through Harvard Square and through the campus of Harvard University to and from work, to the hospital twice a day. It was surreal to think I’ve left Wayne County, yet here I am walking the sidewalks with these Harvard kids, and being a nurse with those med students, and being a part of that whole culture you see in the movies. It was exciting.
“I used to have in my phone—all my friends would have a city in front of their name—I’d have a Boston Nick and a Phoenix Nick and a Denver Nick.
“By the second trip, you get used to taking your groceries home in a taxi cab.
“I was in Boston,” Emerson continued. “I’d always take a few weeks during the Iowa State Fair to come home and spend time with family and friends. And I’d signed a contract in Phoenix.
“My [future] husband and his brother were visiting family in Michigan, traveling through Iowa and staying with friends as a halfway point, and I met him at the State Fair.
“Thinking he was from Des Moines, I said, ‘you’re really nice and I like you a lot, but I’m not from Des Moines, and I’m leaving here in a week to go to Phoenix.’
“He said, ‘well, I’m from Phoenix. So I guess I’ll see you in a week.’
“Lo and behold, I met back up with him when I got out there, and the rest is history. It was kind of fate.”
The Emersons settled down, got married and had two children while Katie worked at an ICU in Scottsdale. After five years, she was promoted to a supervisory position at a sister hospital, going from 30 beds to 10 beds.
“I did it all in Scottsdale,” Emerson said of nursing in Arizona.
While working this job, Emerson gave birth to her second child, Brielle, who spent the first 49 days of her life in the NICU.
“She ended up being special needs,” Emerson said. “The day we were going to bring her home, she wasn’t eating, her breathing didn’t sound right—things started clicking with me, being the nurse-mom, that something was wrong.
“It took several weeks to get genetic testing back. They diagnosed her with a genetic disorder.”
Waiting and not knowing what was wrong was the worst part for Emerson.
“When they called us in to tell us what they’d found out, that they’d diagnosed her, I felt so relieved I wasn’t even upset. They were preparing for us to be really sad, and I was just glad to finally have an answer.
“That changed my priorities. Shortly after that, I stepped down from my supervisor position, and started working in the recovery room. It was definitely more flexible, and allowed me a chance to breathe and set my priority back on my family, and not be so overwhelmed with work.
“After several years of intensive therapy, Briella still has her feeding tube, but uses it only for meds. She’s very limited on what she will eat. She’s nonverbal, so we do lots of sign language. She has a great receptive language, but does not talk. That’s a big barrier still for us now.
“The things I worried about for my first child, and then after having one that has the different [impediments], you end up not taking anything for granted, and really relishing what you do have in each child.”
“When we started kicking the idea around of coming back here, I said, ‘let’s plan a trip, let’s see if we can find a place to live with some job opportunities.’
“We came back that weekend of Homecoming.”
Then Gassman handed her crown to Sloan.
“It was just like a sign—I want a community and a school that will embrace my family. That was the main reason I wanted to return.
“Family was my focus. I wanted a strong school system and a strong healthcare organization and hospital, with doctors, nurses and therapists I knew would truly want to help my family for the rest of my daughter’s life.
“She started three-year-old preschool here—she has a fulltime aide.”
Brielle is in Adriann Anderson’s class at Wayne. Anderson and Emerson were good friends when they attended Seymour in the 1990s.
“She absolutely loves it,” Emerson said of Brielle’s experience in preschool. “It’s such an exciting thing to see her so excited about something—she’s never been in any kind of daycare setting.”
Son Luke is in second grade at Wayne.
“He really embraced it,” Emerson said of her husband’s attitude toward moving to Iowa. “He enjoys this simple life, and the idea of a farm life and being with family and getting away—he never was a city kind of kid.”
Nick’s mother grew up in Michigan. His father grew up in Montana, and like his father, he is a woodworker. In Wayne County, he is helping the Hagan family renovate the Hotel Rea.
“As time marches on, and places like southern Iowa seem to get smaller and smaller, you grow closer and closer, not just within your town, but with the community,” Katie said of old rivals like Seymour and Corydon finding more in common as small farms and businesses began to die in the 1980s, replaced by corporations.
Emerson hopes Wayne County and southern Iowa continue to find more reasons to stick together and fight for a community-oriented way of life, instead of picking fights over trivial differences.
Before the job opened at WCH, Emerson was CNO at Decatur County Hospital in Leon while her family lived in Wayne County. Therefore, it was another stroke of fate when the same position in Corydon opened, with Mattly’s departure, less than a year after her family moved back to Iowa. Emerson gladly excepted the job offer in August.
“I felt that way just working in Decatur and commuting here,” Emerson said of small towns rallying to help each other. “There weren’t too many hard feelings—at the end of the day, we’re all a community, especially in southern Iowa.”