Challenge, changes and family drew nurse to medicine
Lewis wants to encourage others to pursue their goals
By Shady Grove Oliver
The Arctic Sounder
Jeanne Lewis, 55, is one of Kotzebue's newest nurses. After years in the U.S. Coast Guard and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and raising a family that includes seven kids and five grandkids, she decided to pursue her dream of continued education and enroll in the nursing program offered by the University of Alaska Anchorage through the Chukchi Campus. It's been a long journey to get where she's at now, she said. But she hopes to encourage others to follow their interests wherever they lead. The Sounder recently spoke with Lewis. This is a portion of that interview.
Q: Could you tell me a little bit about why you decided to do this program? What motivated you to do this?
A: "There was actually several reasons. I can't put it down to one event. If there's something going on, an accident's happened and everyone stands in the crowd and watches, I just can't stand there. There's something inside me that makes me take a step forward and want to help. That's probably one of the reasons I did EMS for 10 years before I started this program. Another reason why I wanted this program is because I wanted to know what to do; I wanted to have the knowledge to be able to help somebody.
Part of this, to be able to go to school and college, (is that) I wanted to honor my parents. I remember when I was a little girl, my first dad, he'd go through the change he'd gotten. This was a long time ago. He'd find silver dimes and he'd put them in a shoebox. I asked him, 'Why are you doing that?' He goes, 'This is going to pay for your college. I'm saving for you to go to college.' That planted a seed for me that that was something to desire and want. I remember my second dad. He saved up money and he'd gotten a gift but wouldn't tell me what it was. Each night, he would give me a letter of the name of it. There for awhile, I thought I was going to get a horse. I was really excited because I wanted a horse. But, he put this wooden box on the table and lifted off the cover, and there was a WWII Army medical microscope. It even had the little emblem for Army medical. That opened up a whole world for me of exploring different things you could look at.
When I was in fourth grade, my little sister was sick a lot. The doctor taught me how to test her urine and look at her samples in the microscope, so I could write down that information of what I saw and call him and let him know, so he'd know if she needed to come in for her medicine. Even at that young age, I had an interest in the medical aspect of things. During that time, I had to give my mom shots for medication she needed.
Everybody has their different ways they want to go in life, but I think the medical area has always been something in my heart I wanted to do. But, life kind of took some twists and turns after that. Honestly, alcohol destroyed our family. I think I spent my high school years in survival mode. The idea of going to college or stuff like that was something I wanted to do but didn't know how. It kind of took the back burner for me. I went into the military — the Coast Guard. I met my husband and we got married. When I got out of the Coast Guard, we had our family and our family grew and grew. We had children come to us several different ways. People joined our family. So, life just kind of went on.
Now, I'm living in Kotzebue and I discovered there was school here and I thought, now is the time I can do school. That goes into another reason I wanted to pursue this and complete this. I wanted to be an encouragement to our kids that even though there could be some tough times and things can take a while to do, if they persevere, it can open doors to possibilities. So, I joined school and plugged through each day and that's why I kept pushing through."
Q: Having had such a long journey with a lot of ups and downs on your way going to school, what did it feel like for you when you actually got there, started to study and started to be able to dedicate your time and effort to learning?
A: "It felt like a gift. It felt like such a privilege. When I started taking the classes, when I got my books, when I listened to the lectures, even though it was hard to do sometimes because I hate taking tests and studying is difficult, I always thought, what an incredible opportunity and privilege I have to get to do this. Living up here, I can sit and get an education. The University of Alaska has this system set up (where) I took almost every class over the phone or online. With the nursing program, we sat and watched the lectures over satellite. It's not the traditional class setting, but I was able to get my education and I've never taken it for granted that I've been able to do this. It wasn't easy. Each day, I'd get up and go, 'I don't know if I can do this.' But I'd give thanks to God that I could have this chance. I'd thank god for that kind of adventure each day. I'd go to bed going, 'Thank you God, I made it through.' Some days, I didn't know how I made it through, but I managed. I think one of the biggest things is I'm just really happy to have the opportunity."
Q: In terms of the program itself, what are your thoughts on that system of remote learning?
A: "It is not easy. It is challenging because anybody who lives in this area knows the internet is not always dependable. Sometimes it can be slow. Sometimes a certain class over satellite will have difficulty getting reception. I'm not going to lie about that. It takes perseverance and determination to keep pushing through and not let those inconveniences deter us. But, one of the biggest benefits I saw of it was the small size of the class — we call it the cohort. We were more of a team working together than just a big, huge class where you get lost. We had a one-on-one relationship with our instructor. She was definitely an advocate for us as we tried to understand and figure out the new concepts being introduced to us. So, I see that as a huge benefit. The benefit of not having to move away from home was also huge."
Q: Tell me about the moment when you did the Nightingale Pledge (which is like the Hippocratic Oath for nurses, detailing the ethics and principles of nursing) and when you actually got your degree. What did that feel like for you as the culmination of all of this work?
A: "It was sobering to take the pledge and to realize the seriousness of what that represented. I actually went down to Anchorage to attend the graduation and I was sitting there, waiting, while they were speaking and I glanced up over my shoulder to the balcony where my family was sitting. All of my children but one and her family were able to come. I remember glancing up at them and then I reflected on my parents and I wished my parents could have been there. They have all died. It hit me and I had tears in my eyes. There was like this cloud of witnesses. I hoped that my parents would see that I tried to honor them. I worked hard to do the best I could to be able to do something they had dreamed for me to do.
My parents didn't have much. My first dad, he grew up in Oklahoma in a sod house in a dugout in the side of a hill in the prairie. He literally grew up barefoot. He left home when he was 13 and rode the rails. He hopped on the freight trains and rode them. He was basically homeless. By the time he was 16, he was a pipefitter in the Merchant Marines. I don't know if he lied about his age because when he was 14 he would have gone in. My mom had a tough time. My second dad had a tough time. So, for me, to have the thing of having them see that I had done this, knowing what they had gone through, had a lot of meaning.
I was happy my kids could see me complete this. It was a very sobering thing for me and I was happy, too, to be able to get it."
Q: Now that you've finished the program, what are your plans for your next steps?
A: "I will be starting to work over at Maniilaq. I plan on mainly focusing on the Emergency Department doing emergency medicine. I will continue to get my education to further my studies. The goal is to get certified and accredited. It's a level of nursing qualifications and I want to get an Emergency Department certification. At this point, that's my goal, and to see where life takes me."
Q: Why is the emergency department something you're drawn to?
A: "I'm not sure exactly. It's just where it draws me. I like the variety. I cannot predict what each day will bring me. I walk into work and I don't know what events, what types of situations might come in through the doors. I like not knowing what the day's going to bring me and being able to help somebody at a time that's probably not their best day, and trying to make it as positive as possible. One of my sons asked me once, 'Why do you do this?' I said, 'You know, I cannot control what happened to someone before I saw them. And I can't necessarily control what's going to happen later. But, for this time, this brief time, that I'm with them, maybe I can be something positive for them. Maybe I can do something that will help influence the direction of their path to something positive.'"
Q: What kind of advice would you give to someone else who has had to wait for a long time to fulfill a dream or achieve their goals?
A: "Don't dream it; pursue it, one step at a time. There is a support system out there. Ask questions. They could go to Chukchi Campus. There are people around here who have gone through this. If they're nervous about taking a class, there's prep classes they can take. Just take one class at a time. There's no rules on how quick you have to do something. There's no rules on an age limit or when you have to complete something. It's just that you're out there pursuing it.
I would encourage people out there who know somebody who has a dream to go to college and is trying to do it to do everything possible to help them, whether it's giving a word of encouragement or helping watch their kids while they're trying to take an exam or making sure they're getting something to eat because they're so busy studying, they're not getting their meal. There's a lot of ways that they can help encourage somebody to do this because going to college is not necessarily something someone does completely solo. They do it best if they have a support system backing them up. It is possible to do it."
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add that I didn't ask you?
A: "I would say something that I am thankful for is the cohort I was able to go through this with. We were a very diverse group. As people see, as they read our stories through these interviews, we did this together. That was an incredible experience. I'm really proud and thankful that we made it through and that we are friends."