By Mary Ann Ellis
Born and raised in Baxley, ten-year-old Santina wanted to be a doctor so she could help people. She watched her father struggle with the adversities of diabetes and even helped him as much as she could. He was really sick; in 1984, he had renal failure and had to stop work and do dialysis. He, his wife, and Santina would drive to Savannah for it. They’d get up at 4 a.m. and leave, but the two-lane highways hindered them. After dialysis, he had to drive back because his wife didn’t know how to drive, and Santina was too young. Even as a child, Santina could see how exhausted he was.
“We were excited when they opened a dialysis center in Jesup,” she said. “He later developed a boil on his leg, and they had to graft skin from one leg to the other. I pushed him around in his wheelchair while he healed. I remember giving him his insulin shots. When I was old enough, he taught me to drive and that was a big help.”
Her dad died when she was in 6th grade. He got sick in January, and her mother still couldn’t drive. She stayed with him in the hospital from January to April, when he died. Santina’s grandpa moved in with the children to care for them.
Mrs. Barbara Carter taught Santina in the 6th grade. When her grades dropped below Beta Club requirements, Mrs. Carter intervened on her behalf. She wrote a note to the Beta Club sponsor, saying: “I hope you consider letting Tina be a part of Beta Club. She’s a bright student, but her dad died.”
“She advocated for me,” Santina said. “That meant more than the club. She went the extra mile and set me on the course I needed to be on. She is a big part of the reason I care so much for young people. Buddy Baxley influenced me as well. My mom was his housekeeper. He promised to pay for my books every semester at Mercer if I made good grades; he kept his promise. Mrs. Carolyn Fletcher, my girl scout leader, was in my corner, too. I was blessed with good support.”
Santina graduated from Appling County High school in 1993 and went on to Mercer University in Macon. She applied only to Mercer because she was determined to go there. When she left home, her mother could give her only fifty dollars. Santina was scared, but she knew she’d be all right because she had been approved for work study and would have money coming in.
Santina loved Mercer but discovered that her mission in life was helping people, just not medically. She didn’t like biology nor was she doing well in psychology, which her advisor bluntly pointed out. After that meeting, she went back to her dorm and cried, then got up and found an African American Studies class and teacher that changed her direction.
She told herself, “I’m black. I can pass this course.”
Dr. Catherine Meeks, the teacher/social worker, opened her eyes to the suffering of a people from the slave trade to the present. Dr. Meeks would get moms living in poverty together on Saturdays for a support group. Santina played with the children and got class credit for it while those mothers went out into the community for some fun. Santina was able to get her GPA back up and graduate on time in psychology and African American Studies. When she returned to graduate school, she earned a degree in public health. For several years, she ran a Prevent-child-abuse program for Heart of Georgia in Macon and worked with inner city single moms to teach them nurturing skills. She then realized that she wanted to use her skills in Baxley and came home, where she’s been ever since.
In 2006 Santina was pregnant; she’d always wanted many children and looked forward to pregnancy, but it was nothing like she’d heard. She was sick constantly. She developed carpal tunnel and eczema. Her feet stayed swollen and her blood pressure sky rocketed. On Thanksgiving she went to Atlanta to her sister’s house and things deteriorated. That morning her feet were still swollen, but she went back to her mom’s in Baxley and called her doctor. Her blood pressure was 210/120 and the doctor sent her via ambulance to Savannah to the hospital where she was admitted to labor and delivery. She had toxemia and fifty pounds of fluid. She didn’t even realize how sick she was, but they called her family and the chaplain. She became delirious, tore her IVs out, and managed to get upside down in the bed. They had to do a c-section to deliver her daughter.
After the delivery, she didn’t improve much and finally asked to see a kidney doctor. Dr. Sexton came and prescribed Lasix to pull the fluid off. Finally, she got to see her baby girl. She went to the NICU, held her baby until she died in her arms. The baby had had a brain bleed which got infected. They buried her a few days later.
“I honored my daughter with my pain,” Santina said. “Then I went back to grad school at Troy State and earned my master’s degree in counseling and psychology. My next step was coming back to Baxley and starting the Boys’ and Girls’ Club.”
When she became pregnant the second time, she went straight to the specialist, and although she encountered a variety of problems this time too, she finally delivered a three bound baby boy who is now a fine middle schooler here in Baxley. This pregnancy became a case study for Dr. Leapheart. Santina stayed in the hospital in the bed on monitors for three months. Nonetheless, Jacob is worth it all. Those many children she wanted melted into one, which is okay. He’s her pride and joy.
In 2011 Santina contracted with DFACS to work with families, with foster children, and to do drug screens. She loves it, even on hard days. Even during this pandemic, which has complicated everything, she enjoys her work. She also started Gents and Glam, a community family youth service, in 2013. In that group she has taken kids to Washington, D.C., to London, and to Paris before COVID of course. That program has served about 200 kids. She has an afterschool program called GROW - growing and realizing our worth - and has recently started a homeless shelter for women and children. She knows that was a God thing and has seen some profound success, though not 100 percent. People come in and do financial counseling, bible study, and GED tutoring with the people who live there.
Santina Fryer is not the medical doctor she dreamed of being when she was ten, but she is always helping the people of her hometown. She knows that she’s right where God wants her and doing his work among his children who need her most. She provides the boost so many of them need.