Barb McEwen: Blazing Trails into the Unknown

| By Kiesa Kay |

On any given day, Barb McEwen can be found hiking in the mountains, listening to the wind, and appreciating the quiet wonders of nature. After many intense years of work in health care, she nurtures herself so she can be fully present in each moment.

Barb McEwen

“When I come up the mountain and see my house, I feel such gratitude to be home,” McEwen said. “There’s truly something spiritual about these mountains that resonates in me, and I feel grateful every day to be here.”

Her life has been an exciting adventure, from pediatric nursing to hospice care, the alpha and omega of the full spectrum of life. She has blazed new trails into the unknown, working as a nurse in Africa and studying acting in New York City.

“Nursing opened up a sense of humility and compassion for me. I believe in meaningful, really helping relationships with families,” she said. “I love the connections. I’m humbled by the people and by the process of dying.”

The diversity of her experience has become a fertile source of feeling for McEwen’s 20-year acting career.

“I love the process of bringing a character to life as a new friend, and to live with all the characters inside me,” she said. “When the time comes for a show to end, I always take a day off to say good bye to the character I’m playing.”

On June 11, she will portray Rebecca Boone, frontierswoman and wife of Daniel Boone, in Love Makes A Home at the White Horse Black Mountain. McEwen lived on an Apache reservation in Arizona, but soon, like Rebecca Boone, she fell in love with an adventurer. She and her former husband met at a Peace Corps retreat.

“We got engaged, and married,” she said. “We went to Lesotho and Botswana on staff for the Peace Corps.”

Lesotho, a tiny country surrounded by South Africa, and Botswana, a country to the north, called to many Peace Corps volunteers in the center of a time of apartheid and struggle. McEwen knew it wouldn’t be easy to be a Peace Corps Medical Officer, but she left family and friends behind her and plunged ahead with courage.

“Like Rebecca, I thought, I can do that,” McEwen said.

She quickly adapted to cultural differences, and learned greetings and kind words in the native language of Setswana.

“The greetings are very important,” she said. “In America, people move fast, talk fast, get things done fast. There, it mattered to take that moment, take that person in, with real mindfulness.”

As a nurse in Gabarone, Barb McEwen oversaw the health and welfare of Peace Corps volunteers. She made sure they had their immunizations and training, and she stayed on call for the American community. She also volunteered at a World Health Organization clinic there.

“We camped out in animal preserves, and we could hear lions and hyenas in the distance,” McEwen said. “We had a sense of blazing trails, seeing and hearing things not many people experience. Elephants trampled the ground, eating near us. Our camp was ransacked by baboons one day.”

She stayed through eight months of her first pregnancy, and then flew home. Thank goodness she did, because unlike her pregnancy, her delivery had complications. Her son survived and thrived, and soon she had two sons, Ian and Trevor. After Ian’s birth, McEwen worked in a pediatric intensive care, outreach, and medical underwriting.

“I believe in nursing with compassion, and it’s challenging now within the structure of today’s health delivery system,” McEwen said. “Health care has really changed so much. We helped people because they needed it, and our care wasn’t dictated by insurance companies. I feel blessed to have been in nursing during that time. I believe in doing paperwork later, and being present for the person.”

More recently, she worked as a Hospice nurse for eight years. At Hospice, she often met older, lifelong couples.

“I feel very grateful that I have worked so many years taking care of people, pulling the wagons around and supporting their journey through the dying process,” she said. “It’s an honor to be with people, including older people, as they stay with their partners of sixty years or more. It’s wonderful to feel the waves of warmth, contentment, and happiness they’ve created over time, even as they face death together.”

Her work as a Hospice-care nurse gave her a new perspective on life. Some nights when on call, as soon as she put her head on the pillow, another call came and she found herself driving to the next place, often to a death. Small concerns like fatigue melted as she focused on the big picture.

McEwen often contemplates new adventures, like becoming a Peace Corps volunteer in the South Pacific, but she’s found real peace in these mountains. Moving, exploring, and adventuring has meant releasing many personal possessions, keeping only the most cherished items.

“I’ve learned that the things I planned to put away for special occasions really deserve everyday use,” she said.
She would like to learn a few new things, like how to ride a horse, but she already has reached many of her life’s goals. Acting allows her to pull from all those experiences and share compassionate connections with an audience.

“I’m creating the final chapters of my life, or the third act, as many say,” McEwen said. “I believe that in life, this act can be the best.”

Kiesa Kay, playwright and poet, celebrates and supports resilience by writing about people who embody strength and kindness. She enjoys learning to play old-time fiddle.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker