Steph Nelson suctions a patient simulator in MPCC's nursing department.
Every situation she has been through, every emotion she has experienced - has led her to where she's supposed to be.
That's how Steph Nelson feels about her journey to becoming a registered nurse. Nelson will graduate with an Associate Degree in Nursing from Mid-Plains Community College in May of 2020. It's an achievement she's been working toward her entire life.
"I've always asked myself, 'What was I created for? Why am I here?" said Nelson. "I've prayed about it and prayed about it, and the answer I keep coming back to is that I'm supposed to protect. I feel it deep down in my soul. I'm supposed to protect and help others, so that's what I'm going to do."
It was that calling that led the Trumbull native to join the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school in 1996.
"I always wanted to be a nurse when I was little, but I didn't think I was smart enough," Nelson said. "My dad always said, 'Don't do anything half-assed,' so I decided I would go big – either become a state trooper or a Marine."
Ultimately, the Marines won out. Nelson recruited in Michigan then completed a tour of duty.
"Afterward, I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do," Nelson said. "I moved back to Nebraska and had to find a source of income."
She enrolled in Certified Nurse Aide and Medication Aide classes at Hastings College and ended up working at a nursing home, where she fell in love with the little, white-haired ladies. Nelson made a point to take them movies and popcorn just to watch their faces light up.
After that, she accepted a position in quality control at Thermo King. While she loved the line work, the job overall left her unfulfilled.
Nelson was sure there had to be more to life, but didn't have long to ponder what that might be. In 2006, her grandmother ended up in a hospital in Lincoln for heart surgery and kidney issues. Nelson was by her side the entire time, caring for and supporting her.
Even though the nursing profession seemed to be dogging her, Nelson continued to look for something else. She went through cosmetology school then spent the next decade working at salons in Hastings, Grand Island and North Platte - where she followed the man who would become her husband.
"Eventually, I ended up working for Deb Erickson at First Impressions in North Platte and was going to buy her salon," Nelson said. "But still, I kept thinking, 'Am I just going to do hair for the rest of my life?' I had to go deeper. I had to find that something more."
Her mind drifted back to the women from the rest home – particularly the ones who didn't have families nearby to visit them.
"I wanted to be there for those ladies," Nelson said. "I wanted to be the one who took them to their medical appointments. I wanted to hold their hands and comfort them."
Her husband encouraged her to give nursing a try. She agreed, but not without some hesitation. The idea of going back to school as a 30-something non-traditional student was a daunting thought.
Pushing her anxiety aside, Nelson applied for and was accepted into the Licensed Practical Nursing program at MPCC.
In 2015, she began working as a LPN for Midlands Family Medicine.
"I enjoyed being a LPN, but it became too much of the same thing," said Nelson. "I wanted to see what else was out there."
She contemplated becoming a registered nurse until her mother was diagnosed with cancer.
"I went home to be with her," Nelson said. "That was hard. I never wanted to be around cancer, but being with my mom changed that. Because of my cosmetology background, she asked me to be the one to shave her head. I cried more than she did. Just realizing what she was going through and that the drugs that were being put into her system could actually kill her – was an eye-opener."
So was the way her mother was treated.
"Some of her nurses would come into her room, do their job and leave," Nelson said. "My brain kept saying, 'there has to be a better way, a better bedside manner, a better method of caring for people that would make them feel special and calm their fears.' I just took everything in."
Nelson wraps a gift as part of the Santa Cop program MPCC nursing students volunteer for every year.
After her mother's ordeal was over, Nelson started on a fast track to get her prerequisites done, and last fall, she entered MPCC's ADN program.
Her goal after graduating is to spend at least five years working in critical care in an emergency room or intensive care unit then become a flight nurse. She likes the structure and camaraderie that being a flight nurse provides and the fact that it ties into her military background.
"I feel like I have been put in all these different places in my life for a reason," Nelson said. "Now, when I have patients dealing with difficult situations, I can better understand what they are going through. My mother's cancer is an example. So is my sister's husband. He was declared brain dead, and I watched her have to make life-changing decisions. In February, my grandpa passed away, and I listened to his last two heartbeats. I never thought I could be that close to someone who was dying."
She can even relate to sexual assault victims because she, too, was sexually assaulted while serving in the Marines.
"You hold their hands and cry with them," Nelson said. "I get all emotional when I'm working with my patients because I care so deeply for them. I'm always trying to get to the bottom of how I can help my patients and their families more."
Nursing isn't all about the sadness, though. For Nelson, it's also full of joy.
"I saw a baby be born while I was doing clinicals, and I suddenly got that full picture of the circle of life," Nelson said. "Whether they are coming into this world, or leaving it, nursing is about looking patients in the eye and letting them know you're going to make that process as easy as possible. I don't know why it took me so long to figure out, but all my experiences have led me to that. I have to do nursing. I need to do nursing, so I'm going to do nursing until the Lord tells me to stop."