TORRINGTON – Oct. 13, 2013, is when Maria Chavez began as a certified nursing assistant at Torrington Community Hospital. It had been one year to the day since she first started work there, taking care of patients in a different way: as a housekeeper.
“Even in housekeeping, we have to clean up after the blood, the poop. You still see the squeamish part,” she said.
As a CNA, her job is to assist the nurses. IV’s. Catheters. Blood draws. EKG’s. Monitoring.
After graduating from Southeast High School, Chavez, 34, did not know what she wanted to do. She took a career aptitude test and one of the top three recommended occupations was nursing. She thought, “I don’t really want to be a nurse.
“I just wanted to move away. That was my goal,” she said. “Move away from Torrington.”
She moved to New Mexico for five years. After returning to Torrington, she became a paralegal, a job she found unfulfilling.
“I didn’t have any personal interactions,” she said. “I’m a people person. I like to help.”
Chavez’s mother-in-law was a CNA and she recommended that Chavez consider it. After receiving her license, she felt she wanted to continue on to be a nurse. Taking classes in Scottsbluff, as a married mother of four, would have been a hardship.
Then she heard about the new nursing program at Eastern Wyoming College.
“I was like, ‘oh, my goodness, that would be perfect.’ Then I won’t have to worry about traveling and being too far away from my family and we can make it work,” she said.
Chavez is now in her first year of nursing school, in a class of eight students that meets at night.
“I saw potential in her,” said Ingrid Long, the chief nursing officer at Torrington Community Hospital. “She’s going to be a great nurse. It’s been fun to watch her grow and spread her wings.”
Long added that she would not be surprised if other hospital employees in entry level jobs, like culinary or custodial, might take the same track to nursing, too.
“There’s no glass ceiling here and if you want something more, Banner helps you with that,” she said.
In 2018, the EWC satellite campus in Douglas graduated its first class of nursing students. It was the first new nursing program in Wyoming in 30 years, according to Suzey Delger, the college’s director of nursing.
“Our demographics are nontraditional students,” she said. “A lot of them are second career students, working mothers, working men. We put 16 in our daytime program in Douglas. There’s not one traditional student in there.”
After EWC hired Lesley Travers as its president in 2017, she wanted to start a second associate degree program at the Torrington campus. At first, she worried about competing with Douglas’s nursing school. But she said that Banner Health, the operator of Torrington’s hospital, changed her mind.
“They have provided equipment, adjunct instructors, and other monies to EWC for the start of our nursing program,” she said.
The donations amounted to $60,000.
“Because of that and because our goal is truly to educate rural nurses for critical access hospitals,” Delger said, “we want students to be encouraged to work at those hospitals.”
The Torrington nursing program seeks to train local residents, like Chavez, to fill local jobs.
“In the University of Wyoming’s program, their basic nursing program, 55 percent of the students are coming from the Front Range of Colorado, with absolutely no intention of practicing in Wyoming,” said Delger. A spokesperson for the university confirmed that for its Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, a majority of students come from out of state, although not necessarily the Front Range.
EWC’s nursing program adds bonus points to a candidate’s application if they come from the five-county catchment area. Between the students at the two campuses, only one is from out of state. The school also awards points for applicants employed at hospitals in Goshen and Converse counties.
“In Torrington, we have on average two RN vacancies at any given time,” said Long. “We for sure will have a spot for any graduates and we really hope that they choose us.”
EWC participates in the Wyoming Healthcare Professional Loan Repayment Program, which allows for forgiveness of student loans for graduates who work in Wyoming upon receiving their degrees. Delger said multiple students at the Douglas campus received scholarships, and Chavez is receiving tuition assistance from Banner Health in Torrington.
Delger said there is a waiting list for admission to both daytime and nighttime nursing classes. There is an agreement with the University of Wyoming to allow EWC nursing graduates to receive a bachelor’s degree only one year after receiving their associate’s degree.
Chavez works three days per week and attends evening classes, with her husband caring for their four children in that time.
“I have a great support team at home between my husband, my parents, and my in-laws,” she said. “That’s a huge help.”
Despite working in a hospital emergency department, Chavez found the first week of classes to be more overwhelming.
“Yesterday was our first test and it was really nerve wracking. I didn’t do as well as I wanted to and I just went home and had a little bit of a meltdown. But my husband’s like, you’ll be fine. It’s the first test. It’s the first week. Relax,” she said.
She finished her prerequisite classes over the summer so that she could focus solely on the nursing curriculum. Human physiology, health promotion, and acute illness will be part of the coursework – as are public speaking and Wyoming government.
Chavez will complete her degree in May 2020. As someone who did not know what she wanted to do for a career after high school, did she still feel that way?
“No. I know now,” she said. “Nursing to me is a calling.”