Cancer Spurs Student to Push Harder for Her Degree

06/02/03   JOHN DAY, Ore.

Illness can be an excuse to give up. For Karen Westmoreland, it was a reason to go on.

Westmoreland will graduate Saturday, June 14 from the OHSU School of Nursing, La Grande Campus with a bachelor of science degree in nursing.

Karen and Mike Westmoreland moved from southern California to John Day, Ore., eight years ago in search of a better life for themselves and their son, Josh. Karen had worked in clerical and waitressing positions but wasn't challenged by them. When she told a college counselor she was interested in the medical field, the counselor suggested she first try becoming a certified nursing assistant. She completed the two-month program at Blue Mountain Hospital District Nursing Home and worked there for two years, then took a part-time office job to begin pursuing her nursing prerequisites part time through distance-learning programs at area colleges. She and her husband both volunteered with the local ambulance, and she discovered she liked emergency medicine.

During that time, in 1999, she was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was her second bout with cancer -- she had defeated melanoma six years earlier. The diagnosis strengthened her resolve to become a nurse.

"I thought I'd better get this done," she said.

After completing radiation treatments, she hit the books full time. She will earn her bachelor of science in nursing through Oregon Health & Science University's Rural Frontier Delivery (RFD) program delivered by the School of Nursing's La Grande campus. "The RFD program allows me to stay in John Day and get my education here," she said.

Initially, the lectures were delivered online live to a classroom just two miles from her home. Now that funds for the program have been reduced, she watches the lectures on videotape. She was able to do several clinical rotations in John Day and Kennewick, Wash., but the pediatrics and emergency medicine rotations were in Boise, 3 1/2 hours from home.

In nursing she has found the challenges she was missing in her previous work. For example, she recently testified before the Oregon Senate on behalf of a bill to provide more money for education.

Westmoreland has a job lined up with Blue Mountain Hospital in John Day. She loves rural nursing.

"You have to be a generalist: emergency room, med/surg, intensive care, obstetrics," she said. "Generally there are only two nurses on a shift. You don't have any idea what's going to come in the door, and you need to be able to give care in all areas."

At 38, she does not regret having waited to complete her education. "I was not interested in going to school when I was younger," she said. "As I've gotten older, I've realized I wasn't challenged at all and I want to do more with my life, so it's pretty exciting for me."

Best of all, she's in excellent health.