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THEIR SACRIFICES COME TO AN END: STUDENTS BECOME NURSES

Rachel Nelson dresses for the ceremony in her Brookings home. ().
Rachel Nelson dresses for the ceremony in her Brookings home. ().

Pilot story and photos

by Andrea Barkan

For 26 graduates of the Licensed Vocational Nursing program at College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, the last 18 months were all about this day.

Every sacrifice – lost family time, lost wages, lost sleep – was at last validated as they stood proudly on stage Saturday, Dec. 11, at Mary Peacock Elementary School in Crescent City.

In the final moments of their graduation ceremony, their smiles matched their head-to-toe starched whites.

Their loved ones whooped, waved, clapped and cried. They clicked countless pictures and passed out colorful flowers.

Before the graduates took the stage, Registered Nurse Will Fair implored them never to sacrifice the human touch.

"Be compassionate," Fair said. "Be empathetic. Be an advocate. Be a nurse."

It was precisely those qualities that inspired Laurie Owens – one of several Brookings LVN graduates – to become a nurse 15 years ago.

It was then that Owens gave birth to her first daughter, Kayla Owens. It was a breech delivery; Kayla was born by cesarian section.

On her way out, Kayla inhaled amniotic fluid into her lungs.

She quit breathing, more than once.

Mercy Flights flew the newborn from Gold Beach to Rogue Valley Memorial Hospital, where she stayed six days.

"It was very serious and it was terrifying – as she was my first child – just not knowing whether or not she was going to live," Owens said.

What she remembers, apart from the terror and the worry, are the nurses that surrounded her.

Owens said she recalls "how loving they were with my family.

"They really put me at ease and explained everything they were doing," she said.

"They were just really compassionate."

That characteristic came up many times during graduation speeches.

Sharon Mellet, longtime nursing professor at the college, told her soon-to-be former students that "nursing is the epitome of caring."

Mellet will retire in May after 30 years teaching nursing and 48 years practicing it.

"Nursing is love and compassion," Mellet said. "Nursing is caring. We welcome you to this profession."

Almost two decades ago, Rachel Nelson, also of Brookings, found she wanted nursing skills so she could care for someone very important: her grandmother.

After high school she worked at Curry Good Samaritan Center and completed her Certified Nurse Assistant education.

"My goal was for my grandmother to never have to be a resident in a nursing facility," Nelson said.

"To be able to take care of her if she needed care."

She never had to use her CNA for that. Her grandmother died suddenly in 1999.

But it prepared Nelson for the rigorous LVN program – an unexpected educational opportunity.

For Nelson and many of her classmates, a federal labor force grant through Rural Human Services paid for about two-thirds of their 18-month LVN program.

Dave Nelson encouraged his wife to take advantage of the grant when they discovered the chance nearly two years ago.

Rachel said the program was all-consuming. She could never have finished without her husband's support, especially with two sons at home.

"The first semester, I ate, I slept, I did homework and I went to school. That was it," Rachel said.

"If you don't have an incredibly strong support system at home it just compounds it.

"Dave had to take over and be the mom and the dad while I was in school," Rachel said.

"It was a strain on my family," she said.

"This is a rigorous program from beginning to end," said Dave Throgmorton, College of the Redwoods Del Norte campus vice president.

"They ought to be proud of themselves when they're done with it," he said. "It was not a cake walk."

Throgmorton said demand for LVNs is stable; the nationwide nurse shortage pertains more to Registered Nurses.

"There are places that are just starving for RNs," Throgmorton said.

Registered Nurses complete more schooling and have more responsibility than Licensed Vocational Nurses.

Owens and Joe Smith, another Brookings LVN graduate, both plan to continue in RN programs.

Smith, 25, will go to Eugene to become an RN and to work on his master's degree.

Nursing runs in Smith's family; his mother, sister and grandmother are all nurses.

"It offers an opportunity to do some real good in your community," Smith said. "To help people on an individual basis who really need it."

Owens will do her RN schooling at College of the Redwoods, commuting to the Eureka campus to get her clinical experience.

Throgmorton said the state nursing organization doesn't allow registered nursing students to complete all their hospital hours at a single institution.

Since Crescent City has only Sutter Coast Hospital, the college created the RN bridge program.

LVN program graduates take 90 percent of their coursework in Crescent City and do one semester in Eureka, usually staying there on weekends and working Thursday through Sunday in the hospital.

Nelson hopes to go right to work at Pelican Bay State Prison as a Medical Technical Assistant.

It's a road often taken by local new LVN program graduates.

Throgmorton said they basically have three places to work: the prison, local hospitals and area convalescent homes.

"The prison absorbs a lot," he said.

College administrators have some plans for the future of their own.

Throgmorton said they plan to branch out into allied health academic programming including massage, physical therapy and dental hygiene.

They hope to operate the physical therapy and massage therapy courses by the end of next academic year.

Throgmorton said many nursing graduates are older, returning students with strong roots in the community.

"Most CR grads stay in the area," he said. "They love this region, their families are in this region and they don't move on."

The type of students attracted to the college's LVN program is getting more diverse, he said.

Men are finding their way into the field. They've also had several commercial fishermen, Throgmorton said.

"It is really interesting," he said.

For various reasons, they make a deliberate career change – and choose nursing.

"It's really cool to see those people go into the program," Throgmorton said.

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