Three Guys Laid Off from Mill Become Nursing Grads

A patient who couldn’t breathe, bleed or cry suffered through the mistakes of three laid-off mill workers on their way to becoming nurses.

Dan Meyers, 53, Steve Ball, 43, and Mark Breshears, 54, made a dummy from a paper plate and a stuffed sweat suit to learn basic tasks such as starting IVs and giving shots. Their practice sessions at Breshears’ daughter’s Clarkston apartment sometimes started at 8 a.m. and didn’t break until 16 hours later.

The repetition and self critique worked.

The three men are among the 165 students graduating from the Clarkston campus of Walla Walla Community College at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. A total of 56 completed the nursing program.

“You put all these minds together and you can pretty much cover it all,” said Meyers, a former supervisor at Three Rivers Timber in Kamiah.

Sherri Jones, a nursing instructor for second-year students at WWCC, said the three quickly erased any doubts she had about what kind of nurses former sawmill employees would make. “They’re compassionate and caring. They are very dedicated to studying and getting through this program and sticking to it.”

Before Meyers, Ball and Breshears enrolled at WWCC they had been acquaintances, working in different sections of the Three Rivers Timber sawmill.

Each was drawn to nursing for slightly different reasons when the mill shut down in the last months of 2008. The science and opportunity to help others enticed Meyers.

Ball had friends who found more financial stability by switching to nursing when Potlatch closed the Jaype plywood mill near Pierce in 2000.

Making lumber, Ball said, he never got to see his work as a finished product, like a house. In contrast nurses get to watch the progression as patients improve enough to go home, Ball said. “You feel like you’re cut out for something else and you could make a difference in people’s lives.”

Ball and Breshears were inspired by their previous interactions with nurses.

One of Ball’s twin daughters was born with a heart defect within months of him losing his job as a lumber grader. “You can tell when someone cares about you. It makes a difference,” Ball said

Breshears’ first wife died three days after their youngest child was born. A nurse wrote letters to each of their four children encouraging them and sharing some the information of the birth, said Breshears, who had been in charge of purchasing everything from screw drivers to chains for conveyor belts at Three Rivers.

They wouldn’t necessarily have started had they known how intense the training would be. “It’s one thing to say you’re going to be a nurse,” Meyers said. “It’s another to go do it.”

With decades in between them and high school, they had to adjust to the routine of classes and tests with immediate pressure, not just to pass their prerequisites, but to do so with the high grades they needed to win a spot in the nursing program.

Ball’s previous academic record wasn’t stellar. The promise of a University of Idaho football scholarship wasn’t enough to motivate him to bring up his grades his senior year and he just barely graduated with Cs, Ds and Fs. He credits his faith in God with helping him excel academically as he coped with his daughter’s health challenges.

Once they entered nursing school, the stakes got even higher.

They had to score at least 80 percent on each quarterly medication test and would flunk out of the program if they failed to do so on a second try.

They studied together, creating mnemonic devices to memorize the steps in the hundreds of procedures nurses do. They sometimes based them on the personalities of former coworkers.

One for gathering the items to change the dressing on an implanted catheter sometimes used to deliver chemotherapy or draw blood medications went like this: “Steve Ball said no more candy today or tomorrow.” Every first letter, other than the ‘O’ in or, stands for a supply.

Even though they were heavily supervised, they were constantly aware of the responsibility they had in caring for patients. Forgetting basic procedures such as washing hands before and after seeing each patient can result in the inadvertent transmission of illness, Meyers said. “You’re in charge of people’s lives.”

Ball worried he was too slow administering medications. An instructor told him to use that to his advantage to double check the dosage, schedule and kind of drug each time, promising him speed would improve gradually.

It sometimes took countless attempts on the dummy before they could complete tasks like suctioning a tracheal tube consistently and correctly.

Making it in the classroom wasn’t the only difficulty. Ball and Breshears were commuting from Kamiah, logging 130,000 miles each, enough to drive from Lewiston to New York City about 50 times.

Money was tight.

Meyers, Ball, and Breshears, said they used a mix of grants for displaced workers, Pell grants and student loans to pay for tuition, books and other expenses.

Divorced and with his children grown, Meyers lives with his brother in Clarkston.

Ball has a family of a wife and six children. They have an online business and a rental. His wife stretched their budget by scouring garage sales for bargains. His sons made money doing jobs such as mowing lawns.

Breshears and his wife had one child still in high school at first. They got by on her wages as a payroll clerk for the school district, clerk of the school board and administrative secretary.

Each faced temptations to quit. Ball sometimes could barely hold back tears during his commute because he missed his family so much. Like Meyers and Breshears, he’d go for 40 hours at a time without sleeping to get enough studying done. “I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and not recognized the person I saw.”

The summer before entering the nursing program, Meyers landed a job at the sawmill, which is now running under new owners. He said he probably would have returned to his old career had he not already been accepted into the nursing program.

With only their national boards standing between them and nursing jobs, Meyers, Ball and Breshears are only now starting to think about what type of nursing they want to do.

All three said they were willing to do anything just to get a little experience, especially if the jobs were in the region.

One of Meyers’ interests is cardiology. Breshears likes the emergency room and the intensive care unit. Ball enjoys the same areas as Breshears as well as long-term care.

“It’s definitely worth it,” Breshears said. “The experience, the sense of accomplishment, the camaraderie.”