Nurse of Steel: How one AU student tackled her degree during the Alberta Flood.

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Patricia Ripley understands working in the trenches.

Juggling nursing jobs between two rural hospitals as a Registered Nurse (RN), she’s accustomed to doing what it takes to comfort patients in distress.PatRipley

But when her family’s home in High River was hit by the Alberta Flood of 2013, the knack for caring became all-too personal. Ripley, 55, was smack-dab in the middle of her studies in AU’s post-RN Bachelor of Nursing program when her world came splashing around her.

While she was not living in High River at the time, her 87-year-old mother and cancer-ridden brother were. Ripley’s parents had built their home a half-century ago. When the flood waters hit causing their basement to collapse, the elderly mother and son were still inside the house.

Ripley spent the next two months managing her work and university classes while helping with the flood wreckage for her immediate and extended family and friends in the community she grew up in.

The cleanup was back-breaking and the next few months involved more than enough tragedy for any family to cope with.

“We housed our mom and my brother with us, eventually got them settled back in High River. And then, sadly, my brother died within a couple of months,” says Ripley.

Ripley had initially started Athabasca University’s Bachelor of Nursing program in 1990 but found it time consuming while raising her family of three young daughters.

She put the degree on hold.

But nearly 20 years later, her daughters now grown and living on the West Coast, AU’s reputation for flexibility prompted Ripley to give it the old college try a second time ’round.

Fortunately, AU applied the five initial courses she had taken in 1990. In 2009, Ripley balanced a reprised class workload while continuing with her permanent night shifts. She’s an acute care nurse in the southwest Alberta town of Blairmore (in the Crowsnest Pass region) and does causal shifts on the High River Hospital’s Labour and Delivery unit.

Ripley notes the fact she could juggle work and school was a huge selling point in her decision to re-pursue her Bachelor of Nursing.

“That’s absolutely why [I did it],” she says.

“The flexibility means everything to me. It was the only place, really, to do my degree because I needed to work at the same time. I didn’t want to go back to [a bricks and mortar] school.”

Working nights allowed Ripley to tackle her class assignments during the day.Pat Ripley at work 6

She finally received her BN degree last week. While thrilled she completed it, she concedes the achievement is  somewhat bittersweet.

Not only did she survive a veritable war zone wrought by the flood and its ensuing clean-up, the loss of her family home and the passing of her beloved brother, but that same year, Ripley’s husband also lost two of his siblings, adding to their gargantuan grief.

“It was a year that we don’t want to repeat,” says Ripley.

Trying to resume nursing studies wasn’t easy but Ripley did her best to soldier on despite the stress and sadness.

“I had to take some extensions on some courses and it just slowed everything down. Just the time factor trying to look after my mom and brother who were then living with us…You just can’t concentrate on extra things when you’re going through trauma.”

She says she learned very quickly how life priorities and dreams can change in an instant.

But a joyful “instant” happened in the Athabasca Regional Multiplex where, on Friday, June 12, Ripley received that degree.

She jokes the only challenge she’s finding now is filling up her free time.

“I’ve been waiting for five years just to have a moment to myself—because it is quite time consuming studying while working as well.”

But Ripley knows this is a good thing. She’s relishing her new-found free time reading again. This time for pleasure.

“I haven’t had time to actually read one book since I started my degree. It sounds silly but if you were going to read anything you’d read a textbook in your spare time. So now I’m actually reading a book!”

Another plus to getting her Bachelor of Nursing degree are the employment doors Ripley knows might open as a result. Though for now she’s content continuing with her hospital jobs, she says she might like to pursue clinical education in the future.

“It gives me more options,” she remarks.

“Most places where you apply now want you to have a degree. Even if you work in a primary care doctor’s clinic, they always require that you have a degree. In that way I guess it opens up job opportunities.”

More than anything, Ripley says she feels a sense of accomplishment and relief to have reached this milestone.

“I’m proud of myself that I finally did it; it really means a lot–especially because I did start in 1990. I’m just really happy to be done.”