By Justin Jones, Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2012 —
The typical nursing school program will see half of its students drop out, never finishing their degree. So when Megan McSwain graduated with an associates degree in nursing from Stanly Community College in May, the McSwain family kept its perfect record of three degrees on three attempts.
In 2010, Megan’s younger sister Kathleen graduated from Gardner-Webb with an associate’s degree in nursing at the age of 19. A year later, mother Phillis graduated from SCC with an associate’s in nursing.
All three now work in medical related fields, an added bonus in today’s job market. Phillis, who graduated at 55 years old, now works at Stanly Regional Medical Center in the medical surgical unit. Before entering into nursing school, she worked in mortgage and banking as a fraud investigator. When the morgage industry crashed in 2008, she knew she would soon be looking for another job.
The direction she would choose wasn’t all that hard. A few years earlier in 2004, her mother was sick with cancer. During that time, she spent her weekends at her mother’s side, providing care and making her as comfortable as she could be. Once her mother passed away, Phillis along with her other sisters became her father’s caregivers. He was living on disability because of severe rheumatoid arthritis. She spent her evenings taking care of her father between a rotating shift of family members. It was during that time that Phillis first became a nurse, even if she didn’t have a degree to back it up. Her father passed away in 2006 and after attending SCC and earning her degree, her mindset hasn’t changed.
“I want to take care of my patients like I took care of Dad,” Phillis said.
Megan said she takes the same philosophy to her job at CMC-Union in the clinical decision unit.
“You hear of some patients where the nurse is just in and out. I don’t want to do that for patients,” she said.
“I want them to feel cared for like they’re not another patient. We talk about them as patients, but they’re people ... they’re someone’s family.”
With Phillis, Megan and Kathleen, who works at Appalachian Regional Health Care in Boone, all in the medical field, it seems as if their studying has paid off. All three studied for the same goal, but took different paths. For Phillis, going back to school created challenges she hadn’t faced in nearly 30 years.
Underestimating her abilities, she was shocked after passing the nursing entrance exam on her first attempt. Phillis then began taking on the course load of a normal college student. Soon after taking on her core classwork, she created a new desk to help keep her organized, at the kitchen table in her home.
“It was obnoxious,” Megan said while fully understanding the need.
“Literally for a test, we would study for 40 hours plus for one test,” Phillis said.
“[As classmates] we started (studying) a week to a week and a half early to start breaking it down.”
Phillis relied on an iPod her sister gave her to help in her studies. It wasn’t loaded with her favorite songs, but with a medical application that she used constantly to look up information. Even on the floors of Stanly Regional, she carries the iPod to refresh her memory on the things she studied.
Megan was in her first year of nursing school at the same time Phillis was approaching graduation, but took a different route in her approach to classwork. She had already graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After being in the classroom setting for the last four years, she didn’t feel the stress her mom felt.
“It was just knowing when to be studying and when not to hang out with friends,” Megan said.
“It’s a humbling experience knowing you can be out of the program with one bad grade.”
That’s not to say Megan didn’t put in her fair share of studying for tests, but it came easier to her. She was coming off a four-year degree, still seasoned of her prerequisites from UNC.
During all this, Phillis’s husband, Dan, was just trying to survive the effects from all the studying. With the kitchen table covered in books and his wife constantly studying, his life was revolving around school without being a student himself.
“He found every frozen meal known to man,” Phillis said.
“My dad is such a saint, he is such an amazing man, father and husband. Although he wasn’t studying, he was right there with us with the sacrifices. With all the clinicals, test and classes and never knowing when we’re gonna be home. He was so amazing and supportive throughout the entire time. He was so uplifting and positive. We could not have done it without him either,” Kathleen said.
So with their schedules turned upside down, each one faced distinct challenges but some were shared. Phillis and her daughters faced balancing their schedules between studying, classes and work with how little time left they had to do it all.
For Megan and Kathleen, having to tell their friends they couldn’t hang out because of a test was something that was difficult to do, but necessary.
“Having to tell your friends and family that I would love to come home, but I can’t,” Kathleen said.
She further described nursing school by saying, “It’s basically putting your life on hold for two years.”
That alone should escalate the difficulty Phillis went through to earn her degree. After going through the process themselves, her daughters agree.
“Mom gave up everything, a job, her friends and everything to try to go back such later in life. She wanted to do it, and she just went for it and I’m proud of her,” Kathleen said.
“It was such an inspiration to me to see Mom go back and get it,” Megan said.