Nearly 30 years into the nursing profession, Michelle McNea continues to be amazed by all the opportunities the field has to offer.
"The variety is part of what I love about it," McNea said. "Nursing is different for everyone because there are numerous avenues you can pursue. I've been fortunate to do so many things that fall under that nursing umbrella and involve working with patients. That's what my personality lends itself to – helping others and building relationships."
The O'Neill native narrowed her career choices down to two at an early age but didn't choose nursing as much as it chose her.
"I always kind of toggled between teaching and nursing and actually have enough teaching credits to be a sub," said McNea. "I enjoy working with children – especially lower elementary level, but that draw of the medical field and patient care was ultimately too strong to pass up."
During her high school years, McNea spent summers working at a local clinic, and the doctors and nurses there were some of her earliest mentors. While that played a part in her decision to become a nurse, much of her desire was fueled by an experience she had when she was 16.
"I nannied for a certified registered nurse anesthetist, and he took me to watch an open gallbladder surgery," said McNea. "That cemented the deal. I knew immediately I wanted to go into a medical profession."
McNea graduated from O'Neill High School in 1984 and subsequently enrolled at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
"My intent was to go into nursing, but after I got there, I had a bunch of friends in education, so I made the switch – thinking maybe I wanted to take the teaching route after all," said McNea.
Plans changed again when she followed her then fiancé, Mel McNea, to North Platte in 1987.
"I couldn't finish my teaching degree there at that time, but I could become a nurse," said Michelle. "I talked to the nursing instructors at Mid-Plains Community College, and they told me to just be patient because, while they already had a [Licensed Practical Nursing] program, they were just getting ready to start an Associate Degree Nursing program."
Michelle took the advice and hired on with the medical records department at what is now Great Plains Health. She worked during the day then attended classes at night to get her nursing prerequisites out of the way. She was accepted into the college's first ADN class in 1990 but waited to start until 1991.
"I was trying to balance being a young mother while working on my prerequisites, and by the time I got done with them, there was another baby on the way," Michelle said. "By 1991, I had a 5-year-old, 2-year-old and was pregnant with our third. We had to buckle down and concentrate on what was important. Mel was still doing radiology for the hospital, and I quit my job to focus more on school. For two years, our lives consisted primarily of work, nursing school, the kids and church on Sundays."
The dedication paid off, and Michelle earned an associate degree in nursing from MPCC in 1993.
"Mid-Plains was such a blessing," Michelle said. "It definitely prepared me for the real world. I did clinicals at the hospital as a student, which came full circle when, later on in my career, I got to work with other MPCC nursing students who were at the hospital for clinicals."
Seeing them in action made her appreciate the high standards her instructors had held her to even more.
"It wasn't just the nursing skills, but how to be professional," Michelle said. "They taught us honesty, integrity, accountability and to have pride in what we did – the whole package that it takes to be a nurse. I don't always see that in graduates of other programs."
Michelle took on three part-time jobs immediately after entering the nursing profession. She worked as a caregiver for Home Health and was an office nurse for both North Platte Surgical Associates and Internal Medicine Associates. She became full-time at Internal Medicine when more hours opened up and stayed there for seven years.
"I learned a lot from every job I had," Michelle said. "Each prepared me for the next step."
Her career with Great Plains Health began in 2000 when she took a job as a staff nurse in the Cardiac Rehabilitation department. From there, she worked her way up to Occupational Health coordinator, house supervisor and transitions of care registered nurse.
It was while working as the Occupational Health coordinator, that Michelle decided to go back to school by taking online classes through the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
"The timing was right," Michelle said. "By then, my youngest was getting ready to finish high school, and I was at the point in my career where I was leading a department, crafting policies and taking on more administrative type responsibilities. Because the classes were online, I was able to take them at my own pace over about three years, and that degree led to me getting the house supervisor job."
Michelle's daughter was pursuing a nursing degree at the same time. They both graduated with bachelor's degrees in May of 2012 and were both inducted into the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing.
"That was a tremendous honor – made even more fun by the fact that I was experiencing it with my daughter," Michelle said.
Although still officially a PRN and fill-in house supervisor, Michelle has temporarily taken a step back from her work at the hospital to take on another role – grandma. She's currently nannying for her daughter, who is pursuing anesthesiology in Omaha, while also doing continuation of care remotely for Great Plains Health.
"It's just another example of how nursing has evolved over the years," Michelle said. "I can do discharge calls from across the state."
She's grateful for the opportunity and for the path her life took. If not for MPCC, she could have easily ended up in another profession.
"Having the college and it's nursing program in North Platte was the key to everything," Michelle said. "It's a great asset for the whole region because nurses are able to advance without having to go far from home. That's a game changer for a lot of people with families, and it strengthens the entire health care community by having highly skilled workers. I'm a big patron of community colleges."